Performance of a lifetime

American choreographer Val Caniparoli works with RNZB dancers. Photos: Stephen A'Court
American choreographer Val Caniparoli works with RNZB dancers. Photos: Stephen A'Court
Val Caniparoli might think he is a ‘‘glutton for punishment’’ in creating his fourth Nutcracker ballet, but New Zealand audiences are glad he has.  Rebecca Fox talks to the American choreographer about his connection to the Christmas classic.

The first ballet Val Caniparoli was exposed to was The Nutcracker. He was not 5 years old, or even 10, but 20 years old. Saying he was a late starter in ballet is understatement.

''It's an unorthodox way of going about it, but it has shaped maybe a different viewpoint than I would have if I'd started at 6, 7 or 8 in ballet.''

Growing up in Seattle he was exposed to music - he loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies.

''But I wasn't exposed to that as a career as I wasn't exposed to dance.''

So, instead he took movie and theatre classes and it was not until he was studying at Washington State University that he discovered ballet.

''A lightbulb went on. Let's see what I can do with this.''

He realised there was a career in dance and while his parents ''almost killed me'' he auditioned at three ballet schools in San Francisco and got into them all.

A scholarship to San Francisco Ballet School sealed the deal.

''I always say I ran away to join the circus. Scholarship was the magic word for my father.''

Just one year later, he was offered a place in the company and began a ''whirlwind'' career which is now in its fourth decade.

Some of the first roles he learnt were the character roles, such as Drosselmeier, from The Nutcracker - roles he still performs today.

''It was the first ballet I was exposed to. They are character roles, so require acting and I came from that background.

''I'm doing the same roles now that I was doing when I was 20, which is funny.''

He went on to perform in Lew Christensen's standard-setting version of The Nutcracker and later William Christensen's production, the first complete performance in the United States, premiering in 1944.

''That's my background. They started dance late, too, and their background was in Vaudeville. The theatrical background they had is connected to me as well - there are too many connections.

''Being influenced by them and their version has stuck in my mind and I'm inspired by that. All of my versions have been inspired by them.''

The coaching he had from the Christensen brothers back in the 1970s comes out each time he works with dancers on the ballet.

Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker with dancer Katherine Minor.
Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker with dancer Katherine Minor.
''I tap into into him. He's the one who hired me first. It's his Drosselmeier that all mine are modelled after - it's what he taught me.''

San Francisco Ballet, the company Caniparoli has been with for 46 years -''it's crazy when you think about it'' - was the first in the United States to make the ballet an annual production.

Staying with ballet ''just worked'', he said. The company regularly did new work, which he loved performing.

''Whenever I thought I wanted to be a director or dance somewhere else, something always happened better there, something always kept me in San Francisco. Plus, I love the city.''

''It's been an odd journey to where I am now as a choreographer.''

Since moving into choreography, Caniparoli has produced four versions of The Nutcracker, with this one his first overseas.

So it is no wonder, he says, The Nutcracker is ''in his blood''.

''A traditional Nutcracker is one of the hardest ballets a choreographer can do as the expectations are so high and in many ways working with children, integrating the storyline, is not easy ... and I've managed to do four.''

Each production is different, but the same, with designs and the number of dancers changing with each company.

''You custom make it for each company, which doesn't make it easier.''

Working with the Royal New Zealand Ballet provided a different set of challenges, especially given the distance between Caniparoli's base and New Zealand.

''Communicating from such a long distance, even with Skype, isn't the easiest. Coming here ... I didn't know the dancers - the other companies I have worked with, I knew the company.

''It's made it more difficult for me to be honest, but I thought it would be, so that wasn't a surprise.''

He has been amazed at how well organised the RNZB staff and dancers were, given the number of children involved in the production.

''They made it easier for me because they are so on top of it.''

The quality of dancers in the company is ''amazing'' and had been a ''stand out'' for him.

''How well they adapted to me, the quality of them on stage last night. They transformed even more because I had not seen the company perform.

''I knew from the second the curtain went up I could sit back and not worry.''

In the small world of ballet, Caniparoli also has a connection to RNZB artistic director Patricia Barker - she performed in the first ballet he choreographed.

Production started a year ago and the company travelled around ballet schools auditioning young dancers.

''I see a future RNZB in their bright shiny faces. These are the future of the RNZB, the future audience members, future ministers, business people and supporters.

''If they have that joyous moment in time tucked away ...''

To see

Royal New Zealand Ballet's The Nutcracker
with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.
Regent Theatre, November 17 at 7.30pm and November 18 at 1.30pm


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