Decidedly down-to-earth and modest, Val Caniparoli is nonetheless in demand as a choreographer around the world, from Salt Lake City to Singapore. By his own estimation he’s choreographed more than a hundred works, although he says he’s never counted. His ballets range from the brooding drama Ibsen’s House and the aching romanticism of his Lady of the Camellias to sultry and saucy numbers like Aquilarco and the exuberance of his popular Lambarena. This month Ballet West premieres Caniparoli’s The Lottery, based on the shocking short story by Shirley Jackson about a mysterious ritual that takes place every year in a small American town.
On a busy afternoon during a quick stopover in San Francisco between rehearsals at Tulsa Ballet and Ballet West, Caniparoli sat down to talk with Mary Ellen Hunt about the inspiration for his latest work and how still being a dancer on San Francisco Ballet’s roster keeps him grounded.
Above right: Photo of Caniparoli courtesy SFB.
How did a ballet about The Lottery come about? Actually, I read the story in junior high school, and I loved it. It obviously stuck with me. I’ve been trying to do this ballet since 1987. At one point San Francisco Ballet was going to do it; at another, Pacific Northwest Ballet. But I’ve always backed out of doing it, because I couldn’t find the music. If you have an idea and it’s hard to find the music to match it, that’s when you look for a commissioned score.
What was it that you were looking for in the music? A lot of it had to do with the specific ending I had in mind. If I were younger and more foolish, I might have picked The Rite of Spring, but I didn’t want the intensity of all that foreshadowing. The music is a commissioned score from Robert Moran, who works in Philadelphia now. You really hear the Americana in it, but with a little bit of an edge, that sense that something’s just not right.
Can you talk about the ending that you created? It’s an unusual part of the ballet. I had to convince the Shirley Jackson estate to allow me to create this work—I pitched it to her son—because it’s not going to be a literal translation of the story. It has the feel of it, and I wanted to call it The Lottery, but the ending is very different.
There are 14 dancers onstage, and each of them draws from the lottery. The twist is that no one knows who will be chosen to finish the ballet until the very last second. It ends with a really killer solo—we did a male version and a female version of it. So everyone will really be on edge because it could be any of them.
When you start a work like this, do you have an image of the piece already in your mind? With The Lottery I only had the picture of the beginning and the ending, although that can make or break a ballet. For me, the mystery was the center part of it. You have to get to know these characters, feel a little bit about them. You have to develop a community as well, one with a sense of conformity, but which descends into utter brutality.
At left: Caniparoli rehearsing The Lottery with Ballet West’s Jacqueline Straughan. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy BW.
You’ve done a lot of abstract ballets, but do you find yourself gravitating towards story ballets? I love the story ballets probably more. Even if a piece I’m working on is abstract, there’s usually a story in the back of my mind driving it. I remember once I was working on a piece for PNB to music of Shostakovich that was dedicated to victims of World War II. During the process, I was watching the news and a story about the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo came on—this young couple trying to run for freedom across a bridge in Sarajevo. Well that was it—I called the ballet The Bridge. I was a quarter of the way through the ballet and that completely shaped how I thought about it.
You have to be open to things like that. I think if you go into the studio with blinders on, having already decided how a piece is going to be, you’re fooling yourself. I’m always open to discovering something that could be better.
Do you look for that in your collaborators too? You have to find people who work the same way that you do, who aren’t fighting you. It’s the same with dancers. I like to get the right dancers in that room, who want to be there, know that they have a voice and will share, who aren’t shy.
Has your approach to your work evolved over the years? I think there’s more confidence. Maybe it’s getting to a certain age and feeling comfortable saying, What do I have to lose? I don’t second-guess myself anymore. More often I think, Why fret over things? If it doesn’t work you’ll just go back and change it. It enables me to not be afraid of criticism anymore. I see a lot of young choreographers really upset by criticism. But I think you must stick to your convictions and do what you want to do, because when you don’t—that’s when the criticism hits you hard. If something in your work rings false to you, then it’s not going to work for anyone else either.
How do you balance all this with the fact that you’re still dancing? I get a lot of ribbing for still being on the roster of the San Francisco Ballet as a [principal character] dancer, but I think it keeps me honest. I think a lot of choreographers forget what it’s like to be a dancer and frankly, I get upset when I see how some choreographers treat the dancers. I’m still in there and seeing what dancers go through. I’m amongst them and not always in the front of the room.