What It's Like to Choreograph The Nutcracker Four Different Times
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
In October, Royal New Zealand Ballet premiered Caniparoli's fourth production of Nutcracker. Grand Rapids Ballet and Louisville Ballet both dance other versions by him, and Cincinnati Ballet performed his first version from 2001-2010. There are some similarities in the productions, mainly in the corps choreography in snow and flowers, but each production reimagines the various divertissement, the party scene and the story arc for Marie, the Prince and Drosselmeir.
We caught up with Caniparoli to find out how (and why) he reinvented this classic so many times and how he copes with Nutcracker fatigue.
Four Nutcrackers...But Why?
Val Caniparoli as Drosselmeyer in Helgi Tomasson's The Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet. Photograph by Erik Tomasson
When Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet, approached Caniparoli about choregraphing his first version, he was excited. "I always thought about doing one, but I never thought I'd be asked to," he says. He was a theater major in college before turning to ballet, so he relishes the rare opportunities to create full-length story ballets.
He drew on the influence of the Christensen version, including its use of children and framing the party scene as a precursor for the rest of the story. But he put his own spin on it by making the Marie role an adult who dances the party scene, the snow and grand pas de deux.
After Cincinnati, he thought he was done with choreographing Nutcracker. But in 2009, Louisville Ballet director Bruce Simpson offered the opportunity to collaborate from the start on new sets and costumes—a thrilling prospect Caniparoli didn't have in Cincinnati. He also worked with a special effects designer on tricks such as the Arabian dancer levitating in the air and a floating table manipulated by Drosselmeir in the party scene. He opted once again for adults playing Marie and the Prince but added a Sugar Plum and Cavalier for the second act pas de deux.
He definitely thought he was finished with the ballet in 2013 when Patricia Barker, then director of Grand Rapids ballet and a long-time friend, asked for a new production. "She said, 'I'm not taking no for answer.' So I fell in line," he jokes.
This time, he added a scene set to the overture music where Drosselmeir breaks through the clock and plants fake magic acts before the party scene. "It made him more humorous and mischievous," he says.
He also cast Marie as a young teenage girl in the party scene who turns into an adult for the snow and grand pas de deux. The Sugar Plum leads the Walt of the Flowers, so there's no cavalier.
When Barker assumed her new post as director in New Zealand this year, she wanted a new production from Caniparoli to match. "When she called me, I was like, Are you kidding? I never in my dreams thought I'd be doing another one," Caniparoli says.
But he's always up for a challenge and used the opportunity to try new things, like having the Christmas tree grow by projection and having kids play mice and adults play soldiers, the opposite of how he'd done it the last three times. He had the Sugar Plum and Cavalier make an appearance in the party scene as the dolls, something he tried and liked in Louisville.
For each production, he's added local touches—the Polichenelles in Louisville are dressed as lawn jockeys, and the Pohutukawa flower, common in New Zealand, are incorporated in the designs there.
The Upside of So Many Versions
Yuka Oba and Nicholas Schultz in Val Caniparoli's The Nutcracker at Grand Rapids Ballet. Photo by Tim Motley, courtesy Caniparoli.
Ballet choreographers don't usually get a preview period or out-of-town tryouts like in theater. Everything is expected to work on opening night. But Nutcracker offers a rare opportunity for a choreographer because it runs every year. Caniparoli continues developing each production for years beyond opening night.
This year, he's returning to Louisville to add a magic trick that involves fireflies that float in the air and interact with Drosselmeier and the Sugar Plum Fairy. "There wasn't the time or budget the first time around. It takes restaging of the first 10 minutes of the second act," he says.
Making changes is satisfying artistically for Caniparoli, but it also helps with ticket sales.
"I need to find ways to keep it fresh for the audience," he says.
The Fight Against Nutcracker Fatigue
As much as he enjoys reinventing the ballet and continuing to perform in it, Caniparoli tires of Nutcracker like every ballet dancer.
"When I hear Nut music playing in a store two months before Christmas, I walk out," he says.
The cult status of Nutcracker also presents challenges for him. If he deviates too much from what audiences are used to, they aren't shy about telling him.
"You get that fight from parents and audience members. They come up to me, 'That's not how it ended before,' or 'My favorite part is missing,' " he says. "But if you replace it with something better, slowly but surely, you become the tradition."
He'd also love the chance to create a contemporary version of the ballet, but he's not holding his breath.
"Nutcracker is too important for the health of companies," he says. "It's an enormous amount of pressure budget-wise, so you can't take big chances."
Despite all this, he's not done with Nutcracker yet. As long as companies keep asking for new versions, he'll keep creating.
"I'm in talks to create a fifth production," he says. "I'm a Nutcracker machine."
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.
There is someone less than a foot away from me, just off of my right shoulder, observing the way I'm holding my hand strangely, but perhaps gracefully? I hope my nails are clean. My arm is starting to tremble. I'm not even sure how much time has gone by. I let my arm gently, almost imperceptibly, fall, allowing my shoulder to melt with it, and stop myself mid-breath. "I am...right here," I say to myself with my director's voice in my head. I am ON DISPLAY.
ON DISPLAY is a human sculpture court, a living gallery of individuals that experience themselves just as they are from moment to moment, without any premeditated movements. Created by Heidi Latsky, it serves as commentary on the body as spectacle and society's obsessions with body image. This piece reverts the objectifying gaze members of the fashion, disability and performance worlds are subjected to.