The Louisville Ballet opens its 2012-13 season this week with Val Caniparoli’s “Lady of the Camellias.” The ballet, with music by Frédéric Chopin, runs for three performances on Friday and Saturday in the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts’ Whitney Hall.
“Lady of the Camellias,” a romance based on a 19th century Alexandre Dumas novel, tells the story of Marguerite, a courtesan whose doomed affair with Armand, a provincial member of the middle class, meets a tragic end. Dumas’ story has been adapted in nearly every medium, from Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” to the 1936 Greta Garbo film “Camille.”
The ballet comes with its own tragic backstory as well. This adaptation was originally conceived in the early 1990s by choreographer Norbert Vesak and costume designer Robert Glay de la Rose for Ballet Florida. With libretto written and music chosen, but no choreography yet designed, Vesak died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.
The project lied dormant until Ballet Florida recruited Caniparoli to rekindle the show, which premiered at Ballet Florida and Ballet West in Salt Lake City in 1994. It was Caniparoli’s first full-length work.
“It’s a challenge to take something someone started and turn it around and make it your own,” says Caniparoli. “This was a huge challenge, because no way could I do it the way Norbert was going to do it. I turned the music around. The concept of the libretto, I changed it around and totally reworked it to make it my own, but also to honor Norbert Vesak at the same time.”
Caniparoli, whose “Lambarena” was last seen in April’s 60th anniversary mixed repertory program and who revamped “The Nutcracker” for the Louisville Ballet in 2009, drew his inspiration for “Lady of the Camellias” not from Verdi, but the Garbo movie and film noir in general.
“A lot of the images that are so incredible in the film, I tried to incorporate into the ballet itself,” says Caniparoli.
Caniparoli calls the last five minutes of this ballet one of his most poignant endings, though the dancer doesn’t dance a step.
“It’s her looking in the mirror, dying,” he says. “This is ballet, it’s not a film, it’s not a theatrical event. It’s dance and it’s told just through gesture. I think it’s a challenge for the ballerina who does this role. You use your body but it’s mostly in your eyes.”
“A lot of times we—dancers—especially in this country, are not trained in acting,” he adds.
But Caniparoli was—he even played Armand, Marguerite’s lover, in the stage adaptation in college. Caniparoli studied music and acting before fibbing his way into dance training at 20 (“I lied and said I was 16 to get a Ford Foundation scholarship, and everyone bought into that.”), giving him a strong foundation in storytelling on stage.
“Before I took a step I was doing music and theater,” says Caniparoli. “I know now how to try to bring that out of dancers.”
In its nearly two decades on stage, Caniparoli’s “Lady of the Camellias” has been revised and refreshed several times, expanding to fit large companies like the Boston Ballet and decreasing its run time by about 40 minutes through storyline editing. The costumes remain Glay de la Rose’s original designs. For this production, a company premiere, Caniparoli has replaced some of the music. He considers this flexibility a benefit of working with the Louisville Ballet, artistic director Bruce Simpson and this company of dancers.
“They’re willing to try a lot of things. I love placing demands on them and they go for it,” says Caniparoli. “I love the attitude in the studio of really wanting something to work. The egos are set aside.”