The Power of Surprise Onstage

November 11, 2012

In a stroke of genius, Val Caniparoli has built a reverberating surprise into The Lottery, his new ballet at Ballet West. Based on Shirley Jackson’s gruesome short story of the same title about ritualized violence in America, the ballet could have been a dreaded experience. Instead, the audience looks forward to each edition. The choreographer decided that when the villagers draw lots, the performers really are going through a chance procedure (echoes of John Cage?) to find out who is the “chosen one” that will be stoned to death. (See our “Quick Q&A” here.)

Because of the way the papers are unfolded and shown, the dancers and the audience only gradually see who has been chosen. The other performers have to change from being friendly to ostracizing that character—even if it’s their spouse. We see them basically improvising.

Then the chosen one launches into a wrenching solo. All the dancers have rehearsed this coveted solo, but none of the dancers know who will dance it until that moment.

Afterward, the whole company gets a rousing ovation and the audience cannot stop talking about it. Of course, part of its success is Caniparoli’s ability to contain a narrative within a clear framework. The ballet will have a long life because of the surprise built into it.

A couple of decades ago Mark Morris choreographed a piece where most of the company formed a single diagonal line, and a different dancer each night stepped out for a solo.

And I made a piece called Standard Deviation in 1984, where we had three new people every night; they came in for a 15-minute rehearsal just before the performance so they could do a short segment of “partnering” with the choreographed trio.

But Caniparoli goes further than either of these examples because he allows the audience to witness the dancers’ reaction to the outcome. He’s provided both the dancers and the audience a stimulating source of unknowing. —Wendy Perron