Hong Kong Ballet and Val Caniparoli join forces for Lady of the Camellias

Choreographer and self-confessed ‘late starter’ likes to do things his way, drawing inspiration from Hollywood’s Greta Garbo for his collaboration with Hong Kong troupe on Lady of the Camellias

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2016, 11:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2016, 5:30pm

Ballet is an art form that treasures its traditions. But that didn’t stop Val Caniparoli looking to another medium for inspiration while choreographing Lady of the Camellias, a ballet based on a 19th-century novel by Alexandre Dumas.

Impressed by the elegance of its star Greta Garbo, Caniparoli kept the 1936 film Camille, a retelling of Dumas’ story, in the back of his mind while creating the dance.

“I loved Camille as a kid,” says San Francisco-based Caniparoli, who is staging Lady of the Camellias with the Hong Kong Ballet in November.

“There’s something about it that just stuck with me. I went back to the film for the character studies, and even some of the movement and style. The film was more of an inspiration than the novel.”

It’s a typically eclectic approach for Caniparoli, who has achieved a reputation for bringing new ideas to ballet without diminishing its traditions during his 30 years as a choreographer.

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His 1995 work Lambarena, for instance, made use of African styling in the dancing, and mixed J.S. Bach with African music. He likes to utilise ideas and talent from outside the ballet world, he says: “I bring in people, and the dancers like the fact that I do that. I like to collaborate, as there’s no need to think you can do it all. Sometimes I get into trouble for this approach, because, apparently, it’s not what you’re supposed to do. But I can’t do it any other way.”

Caniparoli began his career in ballet as a dancer at the San Francisco Ballet in 1973. He started choreographing short ballets in the 1980s; Lady of the Camellias, which he created in 1994, is his first full-length work.

The story is based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, so known as he is the son of the more famous Alexandre Dumas, who wrote The Three Musketeers. The 1848 book, which is loosely based on the experiences of the author, tells of a tragic romance between Marguerite, a courtesan riddled with tuberculosis, and Armand, a young member of the bourgeoisie. The story was used as the basis for Giuseppe Verdi’s popular opera La Traviata, as well as Baz Lurhmann’s 2001 box office hit, Moulin Rouge!.

The fashion today is for abstract ballet – works that don’t have a narrative storyline – and although Caniparoli also works in that style, he says he enjoys the fact that Lady of the Camellias has strong, well-defined characters drawn from the novel.

His background in music and theatre helped him transform the novel into dance, he says. “I studied acting, and in college, and I actually played Armand.” He adds that the dancers seem to enjoy delving into the psychology of the characters as much as he does.

Although Lady of the Camellias is probably the best known of the prolific choreographer’s ballets, he was not the originator of the work. Canadian choreographer Norbert Vesak, one of Caniparoli’s teachers, worked on it first, he says.

“I ran into Norbert and his partner Robert de La Rose, who was the costume and set designer, and created some of the scenarios, when I was travelling to New York. They told me about it. They were ready to perform it,” he recalls.

Tragedy brought the work to him: “On the way back from New York, in the airport, Norbert had a brain haemorrhage, and passed away. Two years later, I got a phone call asking me if I’d be interested in pursuing the project. So it fell into place in an in an odd sort of way.”

Caniparoli liked the idea of Lady of the Camellias, but wasn’t too keen on the music, which consisted of selections by Frederic Chopin.

“I probably wouldn’t have picked the music, but that had been chosen already. The choreography had not been done, so I said I would do it if I could alter the scenario to my own tastes. It was a challenge for me, as I like to start things on my own, and I take a lot of inspiration from the music. But I wanted to honour Norbert Vesak and his legacy.”

Caniparoli managed to turn a few heads with the way he choreographed the ending, he remembers: “The last eight minutes are my favourite ending out of all the ballets I have ever done – because there are no ballet steps. Everyone said you just can’t do that, you can’t have a three-act ballet ending with a woman on stage facing the audience at her desk, looking into her mirror. I said, ‘Try me’. I really wanted to do it like that. I was interested in making it more like a film.”

Caniparoli was born in Washington state in the US. His father worked as a clothing manufacturer and his mother worked at Boeing. He says his innovative approach to choreography came about because he didn’t start dancing until relatively late in life. Ballet was not something he tried as a child.

“I studied acting and music, and that’s what I bring to the table. I didn’t start dancing when I was six, seven or eight,” he says.

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He didn’t begin ballet training until his university years, after attending a workshop at Washington State University. “I started late, so I have to work with something that I know, and music and theatre is what I know. This comes through naturally.

“If I had known that I could have had a ballet career at seven or eight, I probably would have concentrated on that. But I didn’t know – I wasn’t exposed to it,” he says.

Caniparoli staged his Connotations with the Hong Kong Ballet in 1990, and says he is looking forward to returning to work with the company and principal dancer Yao Jin, who dances Marguerite. He says he always enjoys seeing his work performed by different companies, and likes the way that the dancers always add something new to his works.

“I love watching how things change with different ballet companies,” Caniparoli explains. “Sometimes I’ll teach a dancer the choreography, and they will interpret what I mean in a different way – and it can be a better way.

“When I come to Hong Kong, I’m sure I will see them do something great, and I’ll say, ‘Let’s do it that way instead’. That idea becomes part of the ballet, and is taken on to the next company. I love it when that happens, it’s great.”

Lady of the Camellias, Nov 4, 5, 11 and 12, 7.30pm; Nov 5, 6, 12 and 13, 2.30pm; Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. HK$140 to HK$680 Inquiries: 2573 7398