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Val Caniparoli: extending his reach.

The dearth of American ballet choreographers has been bemoaned so much in recent years, you'd think they were an endangered species. They may not be out there in great numbers--were they ever?--but they're out there. It's just that sometimes you have to know where to look--say, west of the Hudson River.

Quietly, without fanfare, Val Caniparoli is establishing himself as a choreographer of uncommon ability and rare dramatic vision. The lack of fanfare is due, in large measure, to his virtual invisibility in New York City, the ever-shrinking dance capital, where boosts from a critic with clout can still help propel a career.

If he is rather an unknown commodity on the East Coast, it's a different story out West, especially in San Francisco and Salt Lake City. A dancer with San Francisco Ballet for the past twenty-one years, Caniparoli has created almost half of his nineteen ballets for his home company. Critics have called him everything from "astonishing" to "a Bay Area choreographic treasure." His work in San Francisco caught the eye of John Hart, artistic director of Ballet West, who invited him to expand his Hamlet and Ophelia Pas de Deux into the one-act Ophelia. That was the beginning of an ongoing relationship with Ballet West, where Caniparoli was recently named resident choreographer.

"I divide choreographers into two categories," says Hart. "There are those who have true choreographic talent, who show you something inventive, creative, and different. The others are people who arrange ballets and put steps together and are good theater people. There are quite a few arrangers; the true talent is rare. When Val came along he showed me a true choreographic talent. I think that in the next ten or twenty years he will be one of the most important choreographers in America."

This season Caniparoli took on perhaps the most demanding assignment to date in his young career, the creation of his first full-length ballet. Lady of the Camellias, a joint production between Ballet Florida and Ballet West, was initially danced in West Palm Beach in February and will be seen in Salt Lake City for the first time this month.

"The challenge is being able to pull off an entire evening." Caniparoli says during rehearsals a few months prior to the ballet's premiere. "You have to entertain people for two hours and keep their interest and make them care about the characters. I think a lot of companies want to do full-lengths, but they don't want to risk taking a chance on a choreographer who's never done one before. So if this is successful it could lead to other things."

Since he began choreographing in 1981, Caniparoli has developed a style and sensibility that are uniquely his own. His best works--Hamlet and Ophelia Pas de Deux, Connotations, Pulcinella (all for SFB) and White Mourning (for Ballet West)--are really ballet theater: fully realized tapestries woven from singular ideas, dramatic nuance (sometimes comic, more often intense), honest emotions, and imaginative, unanticipated phrases. His pas de deux are especially well-crafted and effective, a likely outgrowth of his superb partnering skills.

Caniparoli's choreography is rooted in the classical vocabulary but is presented in a contemporary manner. He favors a constant flow of movement much like the liquid seamlessness found in ice skating, which he readily admits has had an influence on his work. Steps are executed by the entire body, not just the feet, with a particular stress on supple arms and back.

"The movement isn't isolated," Caniparoli says. "Everything works together. The back instigates the arm movement, and everything flows from there. As long as dancers are expressive, I don't care if they have great feet. There's such an emphasis on technique today that a lot of people don't progress beyond that."

Caniparoli, who looks about ten years younger than his forty-two years, has a friendly, easygoing personality that masks his burning desire to succeed. He admits to being "obsessed" by his work, and you can hear it in his conversation, see it in the studio. A native of Renton, Washington (a suburb of Seattle), Caniparoli never saw a ballet prior to taking his first dance step. He was studying music and theater at Washington State University, when he happened to take a dance class. There was an instant connection. In 1972, at twenty, he headed to San Francisco Ballet School with a Ford Foundation Scholarship and two years later he was accepted by the company.

"I started my dance training late, and there were a lot of roles I wasn't up to technically," says Caniparoli. "But I never wanted to be the prince, even though I love partnering. What interested me were the character parts. And I think the real reason I wanted to dance was so that eventually I could choreograph. I would sit in on tons of company rehearsals, soaking up everything, learning about choreography. And I realized I could use all my previous training in music and theater."

His first ballet, Street Songs, created in 1980 for a summer workshop held by Pacific Northwest Ballet, was a big hit. Two years later Michael Smuin invited him to choreograph his first work for SFB. Love-Lies-Bleeding--Which, despite its title, was a whimsical work about plant life-received reviews ranging from excellent to awful. But there was one comment that mattered to him more than all the others. "Erik Bruhn was in San Francisco and he saw the ballet," Caniparoli recalls. "After the terrible reviews came out, he made a point to walk over to me and say, |You've got the talent. Don't worry about what other people say. Just keep doing what you're doing.'"

Helgi Tomasson also saw something in Caniparoli's work. At the time Tomasson became artistic director of SFB in 1985, several dancers were choreographing for the company. Caniparoli is the only one who still does. "Val had done some work on pas de deux that I felt were out of the ordinary," says Tomasson, who also named Caniparoli to the newly created position of principal character dancer in 1987. "His choreography was more interesting than anything else I'd seen, so I felt he should continue."

What makes Caniparoli's ballets particularly distinctive are the scores he chooses to work with, an original movement quality that respects the past but defies convention, and the ability to always make his dancers shine. Many of his ballets are danced to obscure, dark, and powerful scores that most choreographers would probably never consider using. Hamlet and Ophelia is performed to the Largo from Martinu's First Symphony, Connotations to Britten's Violin Concerto No. 1, In Perpetuum to two compositions by Arvo Part, and Seeing Stars to Dohnanyi's "Variations on a Nursery Song." Both Hart and Tomasson are intrigued by Caniparoli's choices, and Hart adds, "Of all the young choreographers I've worked with. Val has the most knowledge of music." But some critics feel he doesn't always put that knowledge to good use.

"I like scores that are more theatrical," says Caniparoli, who has received about ten grants--he's lost count--from the National Endowment for the Arts. "I don't go for the obvious, for the well known, and I take pride when people come up to me and say, |What was that music? I loved it, and I never heard it before.' But the one criticism I hear most is that a score is undanceable. I don't know what that means. I find it offensive when people say, |You shouldn't use this composer.' Who made that rule?"

In addition to defying the music police, Caniparoli also refuses to adhere to rigid definitions of what ballet is or isn't. "I never start out trying to be particularly classical or contemporary," he says. "I just go into the studio and respond to the music. I'm comfortable in any form." He usually uses the classical vocabulary as a point of departure and packs more movement into a phrase than is customary in ballet. A pirouette, for instance, may include arms swinging in all directions, and end with the head in an unexpected position. The shapes of lifts are unusual and the preparation and completion of steps often break with tradition. The stress on the arms and torso, the freedom and sweep in the choreography, are more often associated with modem dance.

"I'd love to choreograph for a modern company," he says. "I keep trying to get grant money to work with a modern company, but I'm always turned down. There's been so much support for modem choreographers to work with ballet companies, but the same isn't true in reverse."

Caniparoli's choreography has been danced by about twelve companies, and his primary goal right now is for his work to be performed anywhere and everywhere, especially in New York City. Connotations and Hamlet and Ophelia were seen there during SFB's 1991 and 1993 engagements, receiving mixed reviews. Caniparoli is more disturbed by a segment of the critics who tend to ignore him and other choreographers who are considered regional--as if they were unworthy of comment.

"I've gotten some great reviews in New York," he says, "and I don't expect anyone to like everything. But there's an attitude among some critics of, |He doesn't matter.' There's nothing worse than being dismissed. That's why the work has to be seen. If critics see what you're doing year after year after year, they can't just dismiss you. A lot of choreographers and dancers want opinions and constructive criticism; there should be more rapport between writers and artists. I think writers feel that if they get too close to an artist it might sway their opinion in some way. But I think it gets them to see a human face with the work, and their criticism becomes more thoughtful.

"But there is not much of an attitude of cultivating art at the moment," he continues. "The tendency is to say, |Ballet's going nowhere; there are no ballet choreographers out there.' That's just not constructive. There are quality choreographers out there, but there are no outlets for them. The economy is really hurting dance; you don't see new works the way you did during the ballet boom."

But if the opportunities are fewer, it hasn't lessened Caniparoli's drive and determination. "It's a privilege to work in San Francisco, and I always want to continue to be a part of the company and the city," he says. "It's my home, and I plan to stay here. But it's important for me to get my ballets out there, to show what I can do, to find other quality places to work. And somehow I will."
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Title Annotation:American choreographer creates his first full-length work
Author:Flatow, Sheryl
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:1766
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