Interview by Scott Dowd.
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Once upon a time, in the late 1950s, television stations began to offer a few phenomenal evenings of programming that mesmerized the entire family. One of these was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Cinderella, the first Broadway musical ever made for television. The year was 1957, and it created an international sensation. That musical and the phenomenon surrounding its initial broadcast provide the background for San Francisco-based choreographer Val Caniparoli’s ballet A Cinderella Story, which makes its Louisville premiere this month at The Kentucky Center for the Arts. One of the most-sought-after American choreographers in the United States and abroad, Caniparoli’s name is synonymous with modern ballet.
Scott Dowd: Even as Louisvillians were enjoying your iconic interpretation of Hoffmann’s Christmas classic here, you were in Michigan working on the world premiere of a newer version of The Nutcracker that you choreographed for the Grand Rapids Ballet.
Val Caniparoli: Yes, it was a big project with a lot of pressure, but it was very well-received. The sets and production were designed by Chris Van Allsburg, renowned author of The Polar Express, and Eugene Lee, who designed the sets for Wicked and Sweeney Todd.
SD: I read the production was record-breaking with all sold-out performances! That show is set to tour much like A Cinderella Story, the ballet you choreographed for Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2004. It’s danced to themes by Richard Rodgers. Getting the rights to use the music of Richard Rodgers in an original work is almost unheard of. How did this all come about?
VC: I guess it started in 2002 with Cincinnati Ballet and their invitation to the gala in New York to pay tribute to Richard Rodgers during his centennial year. Everyone was doing something with his music that year—orchestras, Broadway, ballet companies, etc. I had created a pas de deux to the tune “No Other Love,” which was originally written for Victory at Sea as “Under the Southern Cross.” He reworked it in 1953 for the show Juliet and Me. A Cuban couple from Cincinnati Ballet had gone back to Europe during break but couldn’t get back into the United States in time, so San Francisco Ballet stepped in with my pas de deux. It just so happened that the daughters of Richard Rodgers were there and they loved it.
SD: It sounds a bit like a Cinderella story.
VC: Just wait. Flash ahead, maybe a year, and I get a call from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet—I love these challenges. André Lewis, the artistic director, told me he wanted to do a full-length Cinderella and asked if I was interested. Well, of course, I was. Then he said, “But we don’t want Prokofiev.” I love a challenge, so I said, “Great. All right. I’ll figure it out.” Then the light bulb went on and I thought, “Why don’t we do something with Richard Rodgers?”
SD: Was the television version your first thought?
VC: I don’t know where I came up with the idea of using his version of Cinderella that was done specifically for television in 1957. But I did think it was interesting and had a thought that we could use it as a starting point. Low and behold, we got the rights because of what his daughters had seen in New York. It’s unusual to be able to take Richard Rodgers’ scores and rearrange them. The estate is very particular about how the music is used, and it showed a great level of trust on their part.
SD: Once you had obtained the permissions, what was the next step?
VC: We had to come up with a story line. That kind of fell together. The more difficult part was finding an arranger the estate would approve. I talked with many arrangers and composers who wanted to do it; there was no lack of interest in the community. But I really liked Ron Paley from Canada. He’s a big name on the Canadian blues and jazz scene—the Ron Paley Band has a great reputation. I introduced him to the Hammerstein estate stakeholders and we got the green light to go ahead.
SD: How did you choose which pieces to include?
VC: We sifted through an amazing amount of music, but I didn’t want to choose anything that didn’t reflect what was happening on stage. Even though we weren’t using the words, these songs are iconic and we all know them. So we had to be very careful about where we placed a particular piece. It was a big challenge.
SD: You worked on the libretto with Sheryl Flatow, who is something of a historian.
VC: Yes, she happened to be living in San Francisco at the time working with San Francisco Ballet. It was easy because the whole creative team was in San Francisco. Sandra Woodall designed the sets and costumes for the production. Alexander V. Nichols, lighting and sound designer, was also in San Francisco.
SD: The way you incorporated Richard Rodgers’ television version of Cinderella is brilliant. Tell me how you developed it.
VC: We used only parts of it that emulated the music and that come from a television set on stage. The plot is set during the week before the premiere of the television special. The producers made a lot of commercials specifically for Cinderella, which was unusual. It was unusual enough to have the premiere of a musical on TV, but promotional commercials to drive viewership were very rare at the time. One commercial in particular that I was really drawn to features Nancy and Bob: Bob’s getting ready for his first date with Nancy and she’s very excited. So we used them as our characters.
SD: You have made some interesting twists in your story.
VC: I hope they are. In our version, Bob loses his shoe in the Arthur Murray dance studio. Nancy sneaks in because her stepmother doesn’t want her to go. Bob is a rebel and gets kicked out for being rowdy, and in the commotion, he is separated from his footwear.
SD: The Cinderella story has been told so many different ways. Were there other versions that inspired your production?
VC: I was also influenced by Jerry Lewis and Cinderfella. There are a few references to that movie scattered throughout the ballet. I’ve always loved that film.
SD: It’s also correct for the period, because it came out about the same time as the special.
VC: Exactly. One place I used it is in his entrance into the ballroom.
SD: Edith Head designed the beautiful costumes in that film. I know you are very much interested in the costumes used in your ballets. Tell me about these.
VC: It’s all from the 1950s, reflective of Givenchy and other high-fashion designers of the time. Sandra was really into that and did extensive research of old magazines for the spirit and design elements she brought to the stage. Audrey Hepburn became a muse for us. She, of course, wore a lot of Givenchy, and you’ll see a lot of Audrey Hepburn in Nancy. You won’t see so much of the poodle skirts and bobby socks—it’s more high fashion. She has an iconic pink and black dress that she wears into the ballroom that is central to the plot of this story.
SD: Why is the dress so important?
VC: Remember we are using commercials on the television upstage to further the plot. We found one with a sort of Hedda Hopperish feeling in which a socialite asks, “Who is that girl in the pink and black dress?” As she’s leaving she doesn’t lose her shoe in our version, she gets her dress caught in the elevator. She has to leave the dress behind and the prince searches for the person who can wear it. All the women of the town come in with knock-offs of the dress. It’s a very funny visual joke that I got from I Love Lucy. All the knock-offs in this scene are of original Givenchy designs, and it is hysterical. The costumes in this production are very instrumental to the plot.
SD: Wasn’t your father involved in the garment business?
VC: Yes, but mostly sportswear. I remember having to work summers when I was in junior high and high school doing the bundling line. After they cut the patterns, they stack them together in preparation for sewing. So I really saw how things were made. It was very interesting.
SD: Of course, ballet costumes have to be built a little differently, because dancers need to be able to move. Tell me about the types of movement in this ballet.
VC: It is heavily influenced by ballroom dancing, jitterbug, the Madison and a lot of dance from the period. I’ve used ballroom before, but I really had to research this because the music so influences the direction of the ballet. As you would expect, it is still heavily influenced by classical ballet.
SD: Ballet today seems to be moving in a new direction and this work is, to my mind, indicative of where we are heading. What do you think about the genre in general?
VC: I would call it a new direction for me. Not just from the standpoint of choreography, but across the board there is a fresh approach to ballet that taps into many other resources. I love doing that kind of collaboration and I always include elements of that in my work. In A Cinderella Story, I worked with a lot of people who inhabit Richard Rodgers’ world—Broadway—and that introduced new approaches. I’m not sure exactly how to answer, but we are all trying to push ballet forward. The Nutcracker I just choreographed for Grand Rapids Ballet does that through my collaboration with a children’s book author as well as designers from Broadway and film. They see things differently and it lets me see things with a fresh eye.
SD: It must be a real eye-opener for them as well.
VC: I always say that ballet doesn’t have the advantage of any of these other disciplines—film, Broadway or other art forms—because we don’t have out-of-town runs. You can plan until you are blue in the face, but you don’t know what it’s going to look like really—how the choreography works with the costumes and sets and lighting—until you put it on stage. We don’t have previews; we have three performances, and it’s expected to be genius right away. It’s very intense.
SD: Most theatrical productions including Broadway and film get previews before they even open.
VC: I don’t think most people really understand that and what it means for ballet. It’s scary, especially when you are using a lot of production elements, because you have to be right on. You have to have people who really know what they are doing, because there is no time for trial and error.
SD: How much time do you get on stage before opening?
VC: Not very much. All of these disparate elements are created in the studio and the various shops and, if you are lucky, you have three days in the theatre to load it in and run technical rehearsals. It is intense. And this was one of those. At one point I had an idea that the TV would be located in Cinderella’s own little corner, where she has created her refuge from abuse. Well, the show comes on and the fairy godmother from that show explodes from the television into our story. Then the television replaces the pumpkin and turns into a Chevy, in which Nancy drives away. I give Sandra these ideas and she always makes it work.
SD: There is a lot of stage craft in this production.
VC: Oh yeah, including the commercials, the music…it’s really a huge collaboration.
SD: In the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production, you were able to have the arranger, Ron Paley, and his trio performing. How will that be handled in Louisville?
VC: Ron created arrangements for small, medium and big bands so that it can be played with nine musicians in the pit or a full orchestra—very smart on his part. The set is also designed to fit small, medium and large stages. This production is designed to tour. San Francisco Ballet is doing one of the pas de deux this season with the full orchestra.
SD: You’re not using the words from the songs, but you said earlier that they are driving the story. Can you explain that a little more?
VC: I hear the words in my head as I am choreographing and they are listed in the program. For instance, when Nancy enters the ballroom, I chose “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” So the essence of the songs in every section of the ballet will make sense when you see what is happening on stage.
SD: Do you ever think about how people might look at this ballet in a hundred years? You are doing the same thing Petipa did in his time, but now he is a legend. Does the weight of that ever affect you?
VC: You never know what’s going to last. When I create a work, I don’t put that kind of pressure on it. This ballet is ten years old, but it’s the first time any company other than the Royal Winnipeg will perform it. They have done it many times and I have worked on it over the years. I tweak ballets forever! Balanchine tweaked his masterpieces until his death. I hope my work lasts. I want it to be seen, but you never know. I do have a couple of ballets celebrating twenty years: Boston Ballet is doing Lady of the Camellias this season, and San Francisco is doing Lambarena in 2015. These ballets have lasted, they have travelled and been performed a lot—but you never know…
Val Caniparoli’s A Cinderella Story, set in the 1950s to an original jazz orchestration from the Richard Rodgers songbook, will be performed in Whitney Hall at The Kentucky Center on February 13 and 14. This fresh and inventive retelling of the popular rags-to-riches fairytale will be a treat for young and old alike. To buy tickets, call 502.584.7777 or go to kentuckycenter.org. For more information about Louisville Ballet and the rest of their season, go to louisvilleballet.org.