Back in April, it seemed like everyone in the performing arts was either coping with company shutdowns or watching future work evaporate before their eyes. As seasons were canceled or pushed off into the unknown future, choreographer Val Caniparoli took a deep breath and focused on a glimmer of hope: Finnish National Ballet had commissioned him to develop a full-length Jekyll & Hyde, and was determined to move forward with its November world premiere. So, Caniparoli hunkered down in his apartment while honing his vision at all hours to build this psychological thriller into a reality.
Before the Pandemic
Caniparoli had been deep inside the creation of his premiere, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for many years. While his ballet—which features scenic and costume design by David Israel Reynoso and music compiled from five Polish composers—is scheduled to debut in Helsinki on November 6, much of the designs, storyboard and research had already been accomplished before anybody had heard of COVID-19.
"There were a few companies interested in having me create this work, including Kansas City Ballet," says Caniparoli. In May 2019, he received funding to workshop his ideas for Jekyll & Hyde and approached KCB. Artistic director Devon Carney agreed for him to workshop his ideas with six dancers over two weeks. He and his frequent assistant Maiqui Mañosa used the time to develop a scene in a mental institution that includes 16 patients dancing on hospital beds.
Chris Hardy, Courtesy Val Caniparoli
Caniparoli had been in Finland to cast Jekyll & Hyde for one week prior to everything shutting down. "When I left Europe at the beginning of March, I heard FNB had stopped performing and shifted programming to the fall. But they never gave up or said they wouldn't perform Jekyll & Hyde—though, I wasn't sure it would happen because the world was in disarray."
FNB artistic director Madeleine Onne was prepared to press forth. "There is nothing called 'It won't work' in my world," says Onne. "One just has to find the solution." With management by her side, she drove the company forward in executing their plans for the upcoming season. "We were focused on this premiere, as the making of costumes and sets had already started. We have a two- to three-year planning frame and all is planned in detail leading up to a premiere. So, we wanted this to work."
Man by Day, Choreographer by Night
Shortly after Caniparoli returned home to San Francisco, the city declared a shelter-in-place order. Accustomed to frequent travel for work, he was now stuck in his two-bedroom condo for the foreseeable future. But over 5,000 miles away, Onne suggested Caniparoli continue his choreographic process via Zoom. However, there was a catch: Finland is 10 hours ahead of San Francisco, and Caniparoli's assistant was locked down in Philadelphia. This unconventional solution was transforming into something much more unusual.
In May, Onne asked several dancers to come into the studios so Caniparoli could stage the scene in the mental institution. Not only was Caniparoli creating virtually for the first time, he was working the night shift, with six hours of rehearsals starting at 1 am San Francisco time.
"I was a mess," says Caniparoli. "I'm a late-nighter, but how do you sleep? Plus, we were doing production meetings at 11:30 pm and I was still receiving calls during normal hours. I couldn't stop the stuff I had to do during the day, so I was a walking zombie."
Nonetheless, he pressed forth and honed his focus. A typical overnight rehearsal would include navigating the bed choreography from his couch, frequently adjusting the camera to capture movement out of frame, and dealing with inevitable Zoom delays. Luckily, there were several willing and able dancers to assist in streamlining Caniparoli's efforts.
"I hadn't ever worked with a choreographer via Zoom before," says one of those dancers, company member Emrecan Taniş. "But Val has good communication skills and came to rehearsals very prepared."
Caniparoli felt his situation better aligned him with the story of Jekyll and Hyde. "Doing this at night made me darker," he says. "It shifted my mood. Everything I was doing with the meetings, the pandemic, and being alone made me really hunker down and solidify the storyboard. It got leaner and it improved. I've never been more prepared for a new work in my life."
Zooming in for the Landing
In August, after five months of sheltering in place, Caniparoli finally returned to Finland to focus on finalizing his world premiere. "It all happened very fast. The decision was made that I could fly, but I had to get a negative result from a COVID-19 rapid test the day I traveled. From there, I spent the next two weeks in my hotel room under quarantine and back on Zoom for rehearsals."
Unable to risk going back home before the premiere, Caniparoli will stay in Finland through the first week of November. While FNB focuses on preparing for and performing its current season, which includes a delayed production from this past spring, Caniparoli continues to hold daily rehearsals for Jekyll & Hyde. He is also conducting Zoom rehearsals with Cincinnati Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre while continuing to arrange future work with companies around the globe.
So far, Jekyll & Hyde's November premiere is still on schedule. Candidly, Caniparoli states that he won't again create virtually unless absolutely necessary, adding that it takes him much longer to choreograph via Zoom than in person. "At 69 years old, I am really proud of myself for working in this virtual way," he says. "It was a necessity and we made it work. But I love being in the studio with the dancers."