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Evoking Ethnic Ballet

Val Caniparoli and Evelyn Cisneros on 'Lambarena'

by Dean Speer

April 2005 -- Pacific Northwest Ballet's Phelp Center Studios

I caught up with choreographer Val Caniparoli and former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Evelyn Cisneros in early March while they were in Seattle putting the finishing touches on PNB’s rendition of Caniparoli’s "Lambarena."

Dean Speer:  I like to have our readers know about our subjects’ backgrounds, told in their own words. So why don’t each of you tell us, respectively, how you got into ballet?

Evelyn Cisneros:  My mother began taking me to ballet lessons when I was about eight because I was very shy. She hoped to give me a silent language so I could feeel more comfortable communicating. Within the first year, I met and became attached to my first teacher and loved the feeling of movement to music and the challenge.

And this was in California?

EC:  Yes, in Southern California. This was in a small dance studio located at a shopping center in Huntington Beach. My mother would drop me off for my lessons and she would go grocery shopping then pick me up on our way home. After the first year I began to really enjoy it. I loved the fact that you are constantly striving for perfection and not ever really attaining it – which really kept me challenged through the whole thing. Eventually I was fortunate to receive summer scholarships with the San Francisco Ballet School and the School of American Ballet. I was offered an  apprenticeship with the San Francisco Ballet in 1976, and a full company contract the following year. I danced for the San Francisco Ballet

for the next 23 years. I retired in 1999 and the company was very generous to recognize my work with the company with a beautiful farewell gala – the Mayor was even there to give me a proclamation and named that week Evelyn Cisneros Week!!  The end to my career was better than I could have dared to have hoped for, the final week even included a half-hour PBS special about my life, which was so thoughtfully done.

A lot of people came to surround me during this time, it was wonderful. Since then, my husband Stephen Legate, a Principal Dancer in the San Francisco Ballet and  I have a 4 and half year old son, and a daughter on the way.

I think he was the one I saw wandering the halls the other day with his dad.

EC:   Yes, my son always travels with me and was here at the studios on Monday with his dad. Stephen was able to join us for the weekend before returning to a heavy rehearsal schedule with SFB.  I am still affiliated with the SF Ballet and my part-time position is Ballet EducationCoordinator for the San Francisco Ballet’s Center for Dance Education, so I’m in the education arena.  My programs include the Community Matinées, writing the study guide materials for the teachers of students attending our Community Matinées,

And you also write books.

EC:  Yes, I co-authored Ballet for Dummies! with Scott Speck.

Val Caniparoli: Which I am still reading. [Laughs.]

EC:   I have been working with Val for years.  Val was actually my first friend when I came intothe company in 1976.  I guess he had pity on me and said “Hey, she needs some friends!”  So we became fast friends.  Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to dance with him, as well as dance his ballets, including a duet he created for my husband & me for the last Opening night gala I did in my career, which is called Aquilarco.  It was a great piece to wonderful music and it was very well received.  I recently had the opportunity to stage this pas de deux again for Diablo Ballet and realized how difficult a piece it is to dance, even for young dancers.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with Val pretty much throughout his career and watch hisdevelopment into one of this era’s finest choreographers.  In our work together, we have always found the humor in what we did even if it was laughing at ourselves.  We have had a wonderful, long, rich, professional relationship.

Thank you.   And so you, Val, are from Renton, originally, which I believe Karel Shook was also from?

Val Caniparoli:  Yes. We went to the same high school; he graduated with my dad -- a fact I didn’t  know for years. I then tried to write to him, it was around the period where he passed away, but, unfortunately, he never received the letter.

So how did a boy from Renton get started in ballet?

VC:  I have no clue! [Laughs.]  I studied music my whole life, and knew nothing about dance or ballet.  I enrolled at Washington State University, studying music, education, and theatre. Do you remember the First Chamber Dance Company?

Of course I do.

VC:  They were touring Eastern Washington and performing at WSU.  They also conducted workshops in ballet, one of which I attended.  The instructor thought I had talent and suggested that I audition for the San Francisco Ballet School.  I also found out that you can get a scholarship, if you are a certain age – to get a Ford Foundation – so I lied about my age and said I was 16 and I got the scholarship [Laughs}.  I quit school at WSU, much to the objections of my parents, but those objections went away after I was offered a company contract with the San Francisco Ballet, after only a year and a half of study.  That contract started around 1972 or 73.  This year I signed my 32nd contract with SFB!  I’m still considered a “dancer.”  I use that term loosely though but now consider myself a choreographer first and foremost.  Choreographically, I got my start here at PNB.

With Summer Inventions?

VC:  Yes, the 1980 Street Songs ballet. I got to know Francia (Russell) because she was staging about two Balanchine ballets a year at the San Francisco Ballet. So we became friends. She told meone day that they were doing a choreographic workshop at PNB and wondered if I would be interested and I said yes.

Tell us about "Lambarena":  Why don’t  you start with what your inspiration was for this thing of Bach and African and fusion and also the inspiration of the movement.

VC:  Many people suggested that I should create a ballet for Evelyn Cisneros.  I was searching for music, but I couldn’t find anything suitable.  The week before I was to start rehearsals in San Francisco, a friend of mine, Eda Holmes, sent me a CD that was produced in Paris.  The music was called Lambarena, that was a fusion of Bach and traditional African.  Within seconds I knew that this was it!  I first started rehearsals w ith Evelyn, but then later decided to bring in African dance consultants Zaikariya Sao Diouf and Naomi Gedo Washington.  They came in and worked w ith me and the ballet just grew from the music.

It was an amazing process.  So in many ways, it was a collaborative effort.  The dancers also collaborated with me and were instrumental to its success.  To this day, whenever it is staged – it’s been staged so many time now (it’s the 10th anniversary this year!), we use the original first names of the dancers as the characters.

Lambarena is really a tribute to the music and celebrates the similarities of the two cultures, rather than just concentrating on the differences.  I wanted to celebrate the similar rhythms of Bach and traditional African music in my choreography.

And when you choreograph, you say that you were inspired by the music but also in a collaborative way with the dancers. So did you have a set idea in advance?

VC: I always come into a project with set ideas, but I don’t limit myself to that.  The music is always my first source of inspiration, but what happens in the studio with the dancers as collaborators, is of equal importance.  I also brought in the African dance consultants because I wanted that stamp of legitimacy in fusing African dance forms with that of classical dance.  Then forming all of this into my style and creating a coherent vision for Lambarena was quite a challenge.  It was all an interesting and exciting collaborative process.  I started with Evelyn’s solo and it eventually became the movement that ended the ballet.

And Evelyn how was it for you? Did you learn a new style or a different way of moving?

EC:  For me it was an incredible experience, and challenge, which of course I love.

To bring together the dance form I have studied for nearly my whole life and then infuse that classical ballet technique with a dance form that I had never experienced (I never took any African dance).  We were taking the African dancers experience and knowledge then transferring it into the classical ballet world.  Putting traditionally grounded steps onto pointe and then making it work creating a new ballet vocabulary, that was fascinating.

Val is very respectful in the way he always allows the individual who he is choreographing on, to be a part of the creative process which enables him to work with the gifts of that particular dancer and not against them.  He doesn’t come in with set steps and tell the dancers in the room to just do them; instead he actually lets it unfold with the dancer.  He has a set idea of what he wants, but he allows the idea to wrap around the individual.

The first day we had rehearsal for Lambarena, he played the music and I thought that it was amazing, unique and wonderful. We had a two-hour rehearsal and worked and worked and

worked and at the end, he told us me we had another rehearsal tomorrow. The following day when I walked into the room, Val told me to forget everything we did, he was going to start over. (Laughs.)  But then, this incredible solo just poured out.  After the movements were finished and he was putting the pieces together, I remember him coming up to me and telling me that he thinks that my solo is going to end the ballet.  But then I told him, “No Val, big mistake!  A woman’s solo cannever sustain a whole ballet!”  But he told me that he felt that it was going to work.  And it did!  Towards the end of the final solo the community returns in a celebratory kind of format.

VC: There was a lot of opposition about ending with her solo.  There was an entire finale that was choreographed but was never used.  I had a strong feeling that it had to end featuring Evelyn.  It was extremely memorable choreography and was also the seed for the whole ballet.

And that’s part of your experienced choreographic eye – to see what works and what doesn’t.

VC: Sometimes it’s tough to edit yourself.  I actually thought that the finale I choreographed was pretty good.  Sometime to have to throw away your ego and trust your instincts.

So ten years out, what other companies do this piece, besides PNB?

VC:  Northern Ballet Theatre in England, State Theatre Ballet of South Africa, Singapore Dance Theatre, Kansas City Ballet, Ballet Florida, Ballet West. Companies that are up and coming that are going to be doing it are Tulsa Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet. Companies that are interested are Houston Ballet and Louisville Ballet, among others. It just great.EC:  San Francisco Ballet is bringing it back this season.  It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since Val first created the ballet. It will be featured in Program 6 in April.

Now what is your role? Are you helping staging, coaching?

EC:  Both. The staging and coaching. Val comes in and takes the skeleton that I made, the rough draft, and really puts in the choreographer’s eye and motivation into it. So each time we stage it, it may evolve just a little bit., here and there.

I was just about to ask if it had to be exactly the same.

VC:  Well, as close as possible. You’ve got to have some freedom though. But there is a formula that has to at least be followed.

EC:  But it is a very different technique that the dancers have to learn and assimilate. And some dancers can be really brilliant classical ballet dancers but aren’t able to do some of the moves that are needed. So it takes a very coordinated, athletic type of person to be able to be appreciative of the ballet.

VC: Classical dance is pulled up and African Dance is into the ground.  The challenge for thedancers is to integrate both.  The women have it more difficult because they are wearing pointe shoes.  The transition from classical to African, and then together, is not for all.  The ladies have to willing to change their way of working oin pointe.

Now when you come here to stage it, how do you work the casting?

EC:  Val cast it, which is always the best because of his vision. He’s also worked with this company enough to really know the dancers.

VC (to Evelyn):  Did you stage it the first time (at PNB),  or did I come out to stage it first?

EC:  Well, I was still dancing, and it was a time that I was very busy for me, but I did come out and work with Ariana and taught her the solo. But then I wasn’t able to come back because I was still performing.

VC:  And Ariana is doing it again.

EC:  Yes, some people are even changing roles. Some of the men who used to learn one role are now learning another.  It’s wonderful to kind of spread it all out so that you get the experience of the ones that have already been down that road in the ballet and then bringing some new dancers in as well.  Dancers are always looking for some new challenges to overcome.  They are learning very quickly.  It’s a really smart and good company.

So you have found your experience here at PNB to have been a good one? What do you think of the company?

EC:   It’s been wonderful.  They are learning very quickly; it’s a really smart and good company.  I think everyone has been really open to what we have to say and what we have to give them and are open to trying new things even though sometimes it’s not comfortable.  In one of the solos, it has a step in it where you have to isolate your shoulders and your hips and it’s parallel and one of the girls just said “I can’t do this!” –  and I told her that she could and then she said “Yet!” [Laughs.]  So just the willingness to go forward and encourage them to try something new.  I mean, if everyone laughs at you, you eventually get past that.  So I think it has been a very liberating and fun experience for them.  And the music, as Val said, is so inspiring.  When we turn on the music, it makes everybody want to dance. With so many ballets, there are dancers who really don’t care if they are in it or not, but in this ballet, and even in San Francisco Ballet, there are people who are standing at the door who wonder why they aren’t in it and would like to be in it. And you have a cast, three or four deep, that are going all out because they would all love a chance to dance this ballet. And in ballet, you never know, injury is always a part of the life, so they just might get that chance. A lot of other companies have the ballet now too, so if the dancers move to another company they might have a chance to be a part of the ballet there.

True true. And it’s triple cast here?

VC:   Yes.  I would like to add that when I choreography, I tend to include all the designers from the beginning.

Tell us a little more about that.

VC: I hate the concept of finishing the choreography and then asking designers to come in and look at the end result.  I don’t work that way.  I, as always, was very collaborative with costume and set designer Sandra Woodall, as well as with lighting designer Lisa Pinkham.  We discussed concepts, visions, color, fabrics, and African fabrics, as well as the cut and line of Bach’s era.  In Washington, D.C., while working on a different work, Sandra and I were discussing Lambarena.  She picked up some leaves from the sidewalk.  These leaves became the backbone and idea for her set design.

EC:  Even the colors.  So extraordinary.  The womens’ dresses are so beautiful, I often thought that when San Francisco Ballet is done with the ballet, I would love to have my original dress as an evening gown.  They’re such a beautiful gowns – the women’s skirts, are all hand-painted silk satin.  That is why they flow so beautifully, the satin (the shiny part) is against your leg and of course, women are very leggy, so I told Ariana that part of her warm-up when she does Lambarena is taking a bath and shaving her legs. [Laughs]  We kind of laugh about it but it’s true because the feel of the satin just makes it all feel a little bit more organic.  Very different from ballet, which is very separated from those kinds of feelings while you’re performing.  But in this ballet, the feelings are all part of it, in all aspects of the ballet.

And when you were performing this ballet, what kind of mental preparation did you go through to get into the earthiness, the tones and the colors – trying to get into all of that?

EC:   Absolutely. Just more life issues, rather than focusing on having to do the steps and the execution of it all.  It is still part of it, but ideally,  it’s so well-rehearsed that the moves should be subliminal so you can go beyond that and feel that sense of community, like you’re drawing one another in and you’re all creating this celebration for the audience and making them feel included.  Creating that sense of community is really important.  Warming -up, for this ballet is slightly different because the movement is much more grounded.  You don’t try so hard to lengthen your legs, or pull up so hard or as high as you can, it’s more about the pulling up of your legs and the relaxation of your upper body.  It’s very unique.

And you’re conveying these ideas to the dancers here?

EC:  Absolutely.  For Val, it’s very important for how the dancers are focused on the audience and drawing them in.

VC: In African dance, the eyes are choreographed as well.  In Lambarena the eyes look up to represent sky and then the eyes look down, representing earth.  The dancers were confused at first, but were very open to this.  Your body is isolated and doing one thing, while your eyes are creating something else.

Sounds fun – I wish I could be in it. [Laughs]


Edited by Staff.

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