Las Vegas Sun

November 14, 2018

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Q+A: Val Caniparoli

What: "Lambarena"

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Where: West Las Vegas Library, 951 W. Lake Mead Blvd.

Admission: Free; 507-3980 or

There is nothing like the work of J.S. Bach to evoke classical European formality.

Add to it West African drumming and singing and you've entered a different realm. Mind-blowing is one way to describe it. Surprisingly pleasant, downright bizarre and strangely exalting are others.

Although Bach purists might disagree, it's not the schizophrenic mess you might imagine.

"It's amazing how the rhythms are the same," says Val Caniparoli, who choreographed a ballet to the music after looking for something exotically charged for Evelyn Cisneros of the San Francisco Ballet. Many choreographers created roles for Cisneros, who retired in 1999, but "Lambarena" became one of her signatures.

It was no easy feat, given the opposite natures of the two dance styles.

Nevada Ballet Theatre will perform the work Friday at the West Las Vegas Library. It's an encore of a March performance.

When Caniparoli contacted African dancers Zakarya and Naomi Diouf in the 1990s to ask whether they'd collaborate on the original choreography, the couple laughed.

"They thought I was crazy," Caniparoli said.

But they forged ahead.

"Lambarena" premiered at the War Memorial Opera House in 1995. Caniparoli says it's since been presented by almost 20 companies. The costumes, created by designer Sandra Woodall, incorporate both cultures: cuts reminiscent of Bach-era clothing with West African colors and textiles.

Caniparoli talked with the Sun on Tuesday.

Q: How do you bring together dancing styles that couldn't be more opposite?

That's the hard part. We're trained to be lifted up and turned out. African dance is all about being grounded. It's a whole different approach. The difficulty is that the women are en pointe.

How tough is it for the dancers?

The African (element) is the first to leave the body. It's something you've got to be reminded of constantly.

I suppose it would have been much easier without the toe shoes?

It would have been an easy way out, but I had to remind myself that I'm doing a classical ballet.

Is there a narrative?

No. It's really a celebration of life, of two cultures - not just the differences, but the similarities as well. There is the use of imagery - a giraffe, a lion. An arm movement might be symbolic of an elephant's trunk.

Why do the music styles work so well together?

It's sharing the two rhythms. There's no changing of either music. I don't want to call it fusion because it's actually the layering of the two on top of one another. Sometimes it's just African. Sometimes it's just Bach.

How would you describe the ballet?

There's no way to describe it. People find fault in that because they can't deal with the cultures clashing. They say, "It should be pure, the cultures shouldn't be combined."

Why the interest by other companies?

I think it's the aspect of its celebration. You don't get a lot of ballets like this.

What companies can handle the challenge?

It depends on how that company's repertoire has been varied . It's not always the first work I give to a company.