A conversation with Val Caniparoli the choreographer of Lambarena, one of four works on the Grand Slam Program opening on March 16 at the Wang Center in Boston.
“I hope that I have yet to create my signature work,” chortled Val Caniparoli in beamish retoste (retort/riposte) to, “Is Lambarena your signature work?”
Following morning rehearsals and a quick banter filled Starbucks run, we settled into a conference room on the third floor of the Boston Ballet Studio and continued our conversation.
SEA: Did the creation of Lambarena change, clarify, or otherwise influence how you used the body or related movement to music in the works that followed?
VC: It along with the other styles really influenced how I use the body. One of the things I learned from Zak and Naomi (Zakariya Sao Diouf and Naomi Gedo Johnson-Washington, the African Dance consultants to Caniparoli) is internalizing: to make moves out of things other than just [steps]…not hap hazardously or going overboard, but using the whole body. The arm movement, for example, extends from the back first rather than just isolating- that is too rigid. And that has influenced immensely my other work. It is not really African based, it taught me a new way to approach choreography. I have always been influenced by other forms whether they be modern, ice-skating, or ballroom. All kinds of dance, I’ve been interested to incorporate in new ways. These are the influences on the development of my style, if there is such a thing. (Editorial intrusion: include jazz, Broadway, and popular dance forms, which the work “Bow Out” clearly illustrates.)
SEA: In an interview with CD’s Dean Speer last year, you talked about the issue of fusing the up-ness of ballet with the grounded-ness of African dance. Given the flow of the mixed movement, even when fragmented by the normal rehearsal process, the pair seems complimentary rather than contrary. In fact, in the rehearsal for the male solo where the still air of the adagio tempo could easily spawn a feathery impressionism one found instead in the dance and its performance the clarity and precision in and required for the playing of Baroque music or African polyrhythms. And, at this tempo it allowed for one’s aged and unpracticed eye to see the connection between the back and arm movement you spoke about above; yet as a whole the weave of moods was seamless.
VC: It’s all shaped by the music.
SEA: Writers have variously described Lambarena as “buoyant,” “fun,” a “witty fusion” or as “a vacant, mushy mess.” One suspects that the ascriptions of either wit or vacuity arise when Lambarena is understood as a “mixing of African gestures with classical steps” only. For this occasion, one understands “gesture” to indicate meaning charged movement and “step” to indicate meaning neutral movement. In the either/or of such a “purist” view, Lambarena then is little more than a cascade of misspellings and other errors of vocabulary. Nevertheless, given how the words “internalize” and “meaning” have informed this conversation both on and off the tape, as well as noting the laudatory response of African audiences, compels one to think that the view of the world offered by “Lambarena” is meaningful rather than confused or meaningless. So, in every nuance of the word sense, how does one make sense of Lambarena?
VC: There are moves in the work where the characters are pointing to the earth and sky. The eyeballs are choreographed, and the look brings with it a sense of celebration of earth and sky. And the vocabulary or the source of the vocabulary of African dance includes the movement of animals. And they, meaning Naomi and Zak, would give meaning to the movements I was doing. And I would re-sculpt them, for example, the extension of the arm [he demonstrates an arm that looks French Romantic] they said looked like an elephant’s trunk. So, rather than lifting it we did this [demonstrates gently undulating arms] from the facial area. Or, at the end where the ladies are on pointe, they are walking in an attitude and undulating their bodies- it came from my interpretation of what I see as African dance it’s not an actual African move. They looked at it and said “Yes, that’s a giraffe.” And we worked more on that. So, they took meaning in what I was doing and I was feeding from that even though I was treating it in a way different from their interpretation.
Caniparoli went on to say that his “sense of African dance is that it is not meant for the concert hall stage.” In a theatre that seats more than five or six hundred or if performed outside of a neighborhood say the detail, subtly of reference, and the sense of communal involvement of African dance gets lost. He needed, therefore, to make Lambarena “a little larger than life so that the audience can see it clearly. The isolations are, for example, a little more extreme so that the dance gets across to an audience in a one or two thousand seat theatre. And this want for getting the dance across is why he is a stickler on precision. Whether it is the weave of voices in Bach or the weave of African rhythms in the music, if the movement is not as precise then the work is a mess.
SEA: So, granting that life and art are finally inseparable, as evidenced by your experience creating Lambarena, let one offer an analogy. One could relate to Lambarena, for example, the way one relates to the language in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” or “A Clockwork Orange,” by Anthony Burgess or James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” Each fuses words from English and two of these go over the top to fuse both words and the grammatical structures of English with other languages. In this sense, your “style”- the absorption of many dance forms- resonates with the writers mentioned. Moreover, the fact that Carroll’s once nonsense words “chortle” and “beamish,” for example, now figure in the weave of the English language shows how works of art, as if they were fellow humans, can “talk” to, influence, and enrich how one views the world. So, whether Lambarena, Plan To B, or La Fille one could relate to these works as if they were persons showing one something. Considered in this way, how would you describe the personality, the moods, or the face of Lambarena?
VC: Joyous Lambarena, celebratory Lambarena. Lambarena smiles out at the audience.
Lambarena, premiered by the San Francisco Ballet on March 28, 1995, divides into eight episodes and is set on eight male and five female dancers. The eponymous CD created by L. Akendengue in 1992 fuses traditional Gabonese music with works by J. S. Bach. Lambarene is Gabon’s third largest city and is located on the Ogooue River. It is the city where physician, musician, and Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer established a hospital, lived, and practiced.