“Nutcracker” Choreographer Makes GR Stop Ahead of Opening

Grand Rapids Ballet brings "Nutcracker" to life this weekend.

Val Caniparoli jokes that he’s a “Nutcracker” machine.

A choreographer for companies all over the world, Caniparoli was in Grand Rapids before Thanksgiving to update his choreography for the Grand Rapids Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker,” which opens Dec. 1 at DeVos Performance Hall. Caniparoli originally choreographed the show in 2014 for the sold-out world premier of this version, which was reimagined by Chris Van Allsburg, a Grand Rapids native and author of “The Polar Express.”

“After the initial choreography, I can start perfecting the work,” Caniparoli said, during a lunch break at a recent rehearsal. “I will make some additions, make it fresh. When I step away from it for a while I can see things differently.”

The Grand Rapids production is the third version of “The Nutcracker” Caniparoli has choreographed including a version in 2001 for Cincinnati Ballet and one in 2009 for the Louisville Ballet. He’s working on a fourth version, which is in contract negotiations. And as a principal character dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, he has often danced the role of Herr Drosselmeyer in productions of “The Nutcracker.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to keep all the different interpretations straight in my mind,” Caniparoli said with a laugh.

Caniparoli said his adjustments to the Grand Rapids production might be noticed by some fans, who will spot a move they didn’t see before. But some of the changes will be as subtle as a turn of the head or a change in where the dancer is looking.

“It makes the meaning of the move clearer to the audience. I tell them don’t be glazed over like a donut. You have to focus the eyes, think about what you are trying to say.”

Caniparoli said his dance style was influenced by many different dance traditions. Dancing through the eyes is something he learned from African dance. Another signature move in Caniparoli’s choreography is the way arm and body movements originate in the back.

“It’s not so mechanical,” he said.

The Grand Rapids production of “The Nutcracker” continues through Dec. 10. This traditional family show is about an enchanted Christmas when a young girl, Clara, receives a soldier-shaped nutcracker from her godfather, Drosselmeyer. The gift sparks a fantasy trip with mouse battles and a sugar plum fairy. Tony Award winner Eugene Lee designed sets for the Grand Rapids production. The Grand Rapids Symphony will perform Peter Tchaikovsky’s well-known music live.

Caniparoli said the way some of the scenes were reimagined in Van Allsburg’s version of the classic story forced him to rethink the dance moves. For instance, this version doesn’t have a workshop scene so he had to find another way to work in the background on Herr Drosselmeyer. Technology also changes the moves because in this version the Christmas tree expands through the use of video projection, so the choreography had to be adjusted to the new timing and space.

“Mostly I work on perfecting the storytelling, tightening up,” Caniparoli said. But he is also planning ahead to more extensive changes he hopes to make in the Grand Rapids production when he returns in two years. Caniparoli described these future plans as “more magical.”

The white-haired, muscular Caniparoli has been a member of the San Francisco Ballet Company for 44 years but spends the bulk of his time traveling to choreograph for companies around the world. He came to Grand Rapids from Singapore and Hong Kong. He has also done work for the Finnish National Ballet, the Scottish Ballet and the Ballet of South Africa, as well as New York’s esteemed Joffrey Ballet. He also continues to dance.

“I have not forgotten what it is like to be a dancer, and it is not easy,” Caniparoli said. “I am still being yelled at by choreographers. I get it.”

*Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

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