The Magic of Val Caniparoli’s ‘Nutcracker’ Choreography
By Adrienne Warber
Choreography is the heart of a ballet. During a ballet production, the choreography is one of the most important ways to tell the story and communicate emotion. Choreographer Val Caniparoli of the San Francisco Ballet brings a fresh voice to the beloved ballet, “The Nutcracker,” by creating choreography for the Grand Rapids Ballet production that stirs both the imagination and the senses.
About Choreographer Val Caniparoli
Val Caniparoli, a longtime choreographer since 1982, is one of America’s most sought-after choreographers. He has contributed to the repertoires of more than 45 dance companies. He has been with the San Francisco Ballet Company for over 40 years as a dancer and choreographer, where he serves as a resident choreographer and a principal character dancer.
Caniparoli is known for his innovative choreography and his versatility. His body of work is based in classical ballet, but his choreography is also influenced by many other types of movement, ranging from modern dance and ethnic dance to social dancing and ice skating. His diverse body of work has led to him being one of the world’s most highly sought after American choreographers.
Caniparoli’s Creative Process
Caniparoli is known for his special brand of choreography that blends classical ballet with other dance forms. He believes in collaborating with entire creative team on a ballet production. Caniparoli also isn’t afraid to change a successful ballet if he comes up with a promising new idea while working on a production.
Caniparoli shares some of his creative process: “I rarely think of steps. I’m inspired to create by being in the room with the dancers and with the music. I’m one that collaborates right away with everyone that’s involved in the project. I don’t wait for the designers to come in. They are in the studio from day one. They are affected by the rehearsals. Sometimes I’m affected by a design, and it gives me a great idea. It all intertwines with me. “
He feels that collaborating with the dancers is important to creating choreography. “In many ways, the dancers take ownership of the ballet and give it a better quality product because of it. Everyone is involved and takes great pride in what they accomplished,” says Caniparoli.
The work of a choreographer isn’t done once a show premieres. Since the world premiere of “The Nutcracker” in 2014, Caniparoli has returned to Grand Rapids Ballet twice to work directly with the dancers. He shares what he hopes to accomplish on return trips: “It’s an opportunity to go restate style and tweak things. Choreographing anything is an ongoing process. I’m always changing and perfecting ballets. I get to know the new dancers. You never know what may need altering until you are working on it. The first year is always rough in any production because all the elements are coming together, you often don’t have enough tech time, and you have to focus on the bigger picture. You hope to come back in the following years to perfect things. The second year, we tightened things up, perfected the story line and fixed props.”
Caniparoli talks about the types of small changes that can be made to a choreography over time during a ballet production: “When changes are made, they are usually subtle – a look or a gesture, or eliminating something that muddies the water. Since we can’t talk, gestures are important. I want to keep the pantomime to a minimum, and for gestures to be clear and to the point. Sometimes the simplest thing can emphasize the meaning. The story line and characters must be connected, the structure tight and the meaning clear.”
A ‘Nutcracker’ Unique to West Michigan
When Grand Rapids Ballet’s Artistic Director Patricia Barker teamed with artist Chris Van Allsburg, set designer Eugene Lee and choreographer Val Caniparoli, they strove to create a new “Nutcracker” that was unique to West Michigan and honored the traditional story line. The choreography plays a key role in bringing the production together for this vision.
Caniparoli choreographs from the perspective of both a dancer and choreographer. He also has choreographed three different “Nutcracker” productions. He comments, “I’ve been dancing The San Francisco Ballet version of “The Nutcracker” for 43 years, and I’m still dancing it. I’m heavily influenced by three different choreographers within those 43 years – Lew Christensen, William Christensen, and now Helgi Tomasson. I’m influenced heavily by Lew Christensen’s version of “The Nutcracker.” The Christensen brothers brought the first version of Nutcracker to North America, at the San Francisco Ballet. I’m highly influenced by their background, which was classical ballet and vaudeville. I was coached by Lew Christensen. There is this great picture of him coaching me as Drosselmeyer during Nutcracker rehearsal, and I distinctly remember how he taught me and what he wanted me to do. So that is ingrained in my head for how I want this Drosselmeyer to be. It’s my interpretation of how he taught me, so it is kind of cool how things are handed down.”
Caniparoli believes “The Nutcracker” is the hardest and most important ballet for a choreographer. He says, “The challenge is telling the story, and connecting everything, and making everything mean something to the audience. You want adults and children to love it and come back every year. The big challenge is also the importance of the work. It’s got to last, at minimum 10 years. It’s the hardest ballet for any choreographer because of audience expectations, and working with both children as well as company dancers.”
He shares what he enjoyed most about working with Grand Rapids Ballet: “I enjoyed collaborating with the dancers and having a chance to work with Patricia again. Collaboration makes all the difference.”
Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Nutcracker” production has received good reviews from dance critics and many sold-out shows since the 2014 world premiere. Caniparoli is pleased with the positive response. His greatest hope is that people will enjoy the show. He shares his hope for each show: “I want this “Nutcracker” to be fun for everybody and have a sense of humor as well as magic. I want the audience to have fun and to take their children, and watch their wonderment as they see if for the first time. I want them to see it through their children’s eyes.”
Val Caniparoli’s choreography brings the classic story together in a way that engages the imagination and brings out the special magic of “The Nutcracker” ballet.
Grand Rapids Ballet will present “The Nutcracker” on the weekends of Dec. 1-3 and Dec. 8-10 at DeVos Performance Hall. Friday shows are at 7:30 pm. Saturday shows start at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm. Sunday shows begin at 2:00 pm. Ticket are available through Ticketmaster or through the Grand Rapids Ballet Box Office by calling (616) 454-4771, ext. 10. Ticket prices start at $20.