The Louisville Ballet launched its 61st season with an effervescent and poignant Louisville premiere of Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camellias this past Friday. Louisville audiences are becoming familiar with Mr. Caniparoli’s choreography as Artistic Director Bruce Simpson continues to introduce his work into the repertoire of the ballet company. Created for Ballet Florida in 1994, Camellias was Mr. Caniparoli’s first full-length ballet. The well-documented story of this ballet’s creation has its share of tragedy to complement the fated love story of Marguerite and Armand.
Based on the Alexandre Dumas novel of the same name, this tragic story has been adapted into many genres since its inception, including at least three ballet versions. Sir Frederick Ashton created Marguerite et Armand for Fonteyn and Nureyev in 1963, choosing to use music by Liszt who was linked with Marie Duplessis, the inspiration for the heroine of the novel. John Neumeier’s 1970s La Dame aux Camélias for the Stuttgart Ballet introduced the author himself into the storyline and also used Chopin’s music, as does this version conceived by the late Norbert Vesak and Robert Glay de la Rose. (In an interesting coincidence, a revival of the troubled Marguerite musical by Boubil and Legrand opened this weekend in London.)
On opening night, the roles of Marguerite and Armand were danced by Natalia Ashikhmina and Ben Needham-Wood. The other pairing (Saturday matinee) is Erica de la O and Kristopher Wojtera, alternate casting that suggests that each couple brought very different interpretations and style to the roles. Ms. Ashikhmina has a beautiful, lissom quality that highlights the delight she finds in Armand, as well as expressing both the desperation of parting from him and her death. Mr. Needham-Wood embodies a youth and naiveté that makes Armand’s immediate passion and reckless pursuit of Marguerite believable and heartbreaking.
Mark Krieger, the Baron de Varville, Marguerite’s current lover, is new to the Louisville Ballet this season, and he brings a commanding stage presence to this role. Harald Uwe Kern’s role of Armand’s father was powerful. The act two pas de deux with Marguerite, when he comes to separate his son from her, ranges from a middle class morality stiff approach towards a courtesan to a reluctant respect for the dignity the father unexpectedly discovers in her. This is embodied in partnering that is both physically close and emotionally distant. Other denizens of this bohemian Paris are St. Gaudin (Rob Morrow), Olympe (Erica De La O), Prudence (Helen Daigle), the lovers Gustave and Nichette (Kristopher Wojtera and Amanda Diehl), and a playboy Gaston (Phillip Velinov). Prudence, a former milliner, is definitely the comic relief, and Ms. Daigle revels in the opportunities afforded her. Mr. Velinov’s playboy was clearly the life of the party, manipulating champagne glasses with aplomb. Ms. De la O brought a sophistication and world knowledge that Marguerite doesn’t yet have to her role as mistress to Mr. Morrow’s also-worldly St. Gaudin. Ms. Diehl always brings a multi-kilowatt energy to her roles. and she and Mr. Wojtera were delightful as the lovers.
The opening scene captures the devil-may-care energy of this party set. The costumes suggest both the mid-19th century period and echo the style of the great Romantic ballets of that period. And this is the most “traditional” structure I’ve seen of Mr. Caniparoli’s choreography, again echoing that period of ballet history. Tradition is coupled with innovative partnering and lifts, and comedic sequences with precariously balanced champagne glasses. The women have a delightful aerial kick at the beginning of their solos that underlines that these parties are playtime. The brief pas de deux between de Varville and Marguerite are both sensual and sexual, underscoring her profession, with lifts that allow their bodies to linger together – a sequence repeated with Armand later that night in her bedroom, again reminding us of her profession.
Act two, a garden in Auteuil, is an exquisite example of how less can be more in design. With the suggestion of picture windows stage left, a handful of chairs, and two swings set against a delicately lit backdrop (Michael T. Ford, lighting designer), Robert Glay de la Rose’s design instantly transports the audience to a setting that foreshadows French Impressionism. De la Rose’s costumes are a charming combination of cream and black-on-white geometric patterns. On the other hand, the introduction of bird song and ominous thunder were unnecessarily heavy handed in suggesting both the idyllic escape and impending tragedy. Mr. Caniparoli and his designers would be better served by trusting that the audience will intuit this through the choreography and performances. A charming motif in this act is the sequence in which the men (and, at one point, two of the women) toss balls back and forth, an homage to boules perhaps; the dancers appeared to have fun with this, though one wonders if the rehearsals for this may have been more intense than those for the dance! There is also a nod and a wink to Seurat in the slow stroll of Prudence, complete with umbrella, upstage of the main action. The final ensemble for the men in this act was an exuberant unison sequence that was greeted with enthusiasm by the audience.
For me act three was the least satisfying part of the storyline of this version. The synopsis for the dream sequence in the program states that weakened by illness “Marguerite imagines the worst and envisions the realities and the possibilities….” Introducing a dream Marguerite and Armand is unnecessarily complicated, when the “real” Armand also appears in Marguerite’s hallucinations when she is close to death. Nonetheless, the final pas de deux between Marguerite and Armand is heartbreaking as they rekindle the moves that they discovered at the beginning of their affaire, and Ms. Ashkhimina’s final solo moments on stage are desolate. The first scene, another party of course, in Olympe’s ballroom brings the full ensemble onto the stage again for an exuberant evening, overshadowed only by Marguerite’s worsening health. The moment when Armand humiliates Marguerite was, unfortunately, underwhelming. Maybe it is the need to dig out paper money from a wallet, but the moment was not sufficiently climactic to impel us into Marguerite’s hallucinations in the next scene. De Varville’s challenge to Armand had the impact missing in the previous confrontation to bring this scene to a forceful conclusion.
Caniparoli’s choreography offers some compelling male pas de deux. At the end of act two after Armand believes that Marguerite has chosen Varville over him, his father attempts to console him. Their pas de deux featured some of the most innovative partnering of the evening, and demonstrated that Armand’s father, in his own mind, had severed Armand’s and Marguerite’s affaire with the best intentions. The tableau at the end of the act was stark and gut-wrenching, eliciting audible breaths from audience members and a silence before the applause. Father and son are also linked choreographically with similar low lunges, danced in different scenes, but still suggesting a connection between them. Armand and de Varville also have a brief pas de deux before their duel (as imagined by Marguerite in act three) and this forceful, angular sequence clearly demonstrated the antipathy between the two men.
The curtain call began with solo bows for Marguerite and for Armand in the European style of pulling aside the grand curtain at the center. I was still musing on this atypical happening when the curtain rose onto a bare stage – the final scene having been in Marguerite’s bedroom. By allowing Ms. Ashikhmina and Mr. Ben Needham-Wood to enjoy their well-deserved accolades, an efficient scene change was being executed – and I am sure that the ensemble also appreciated the built-in standing ovation they received as the audience was already on their feet as the curtain rose upon them.
On a side note, I was delighted to see that the Louisville Ballet is now identifying in the program when each dancer is dancing a role, when there are multiple dancers assigned to a role. In the past it has been possible to infer this information, but now audiences can be sure.
At the beginning of the evening Mr. Simpson spoke of his commitment to open each season with a ballet new to Louisville audiences. If he continues this tradition of adding a full-length ballet to the repertoire each year, the Louisville Ballet will hold a significant repository of the ballet canon.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner