(Left) Madeleine Onne, Hong Kong Ballet Artistic Director.
Photo provided by Hong Kong Ballet
(Right) Val Caniparoli and San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Caniparoli's Tears.
Photo Credit: Erik Tomasson
Date: 26 Oct 2016
Venue: Grand Theatre Backstage, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Tom Brown (T), Editor, dance journal/hk
Madeleine Onne (M), Artistic Director, Hong Kong Ballet
Val Caniparoli (V), Choreographer, Lady of the Camellias presented by Hong Kong Ballet
T: dance journal/hk aims to let our readers know more about the Hong Kong dance scene and the activities of Hong Kong dancers. At the same time, we also would like them to hear your story (to V), and your story (to M) as well as how these relate to Hong Kong.First of all, Val, how has your staging been this time? When did you get here?
V: I got here actually on Sunday this week, 22 Oct. I don’t even know the dates anymore. (laughing) I have an assistant, Charlotte Metzger Whitely who has been here for four weeks. So she stages it [Caniparoli’s ballet, Lady of the Camellias]. She staged all the steps like she’s done for Boston Ballet and Cincinnati ballet. She has the hard part; I have the easy part. I get to come in and coach and put my stamp on it, work with the dancers, and kind of get my style into it. But also it’s really important to develop the characterizations. It’s one thing to learn the steps, but I have a lot of motivation behind those steps - the first act is really developing character so the audience knows who each person is. This is what I have been doing since Monday, since early this week.
The ballet is about 24 years old, and I don’t know how many companies I have done it [for], but each time I come into a company, I improve it even more. In the case of this company we’re even working on things that have improved it even more than that - since it was first produced. I love to have the ability to have it done again, it is amazing that you can work on it and improve on it each time. There’s no difference here. The dancers here have been amazing, in adapting to that and working with me. So, that has been a lot of fun so far, it’s only been three days.
T: Madeleine, how about for you? How do you feel, the work has challenged, or helps strengthen, or brings out the strengths of dancers of the company?
M: Throughout the years, I’ve tried to collect different kinds of choreographers to open the mind and to broaden the dancers’ technique in many different ways. Val stands for two things that I think are interesting to explore, [the first] is the speed of the steps - because American technique is quiet fast compared to the European and also the Russian, I would say; also what Val just said about the acting and the characters, that’s something that I already started from the very beginning to talk about why, why do they do all these steps. And now, they’ve reach a point where they’re ready to take on something like this, which is so important if they . . . If we started this five years ago, I don’t think it would’ve been possible. But today, you have real artists that are open-minded and willing to listen to your way and explore different ways to make this clear. I think that’s . . . for me it is like a proof that what I started seven and a half years ago, has now reached a point where they can stand on their own legs and I’m ready to give it to the next director. It is a good group of people now.
V: I like different interpretations of these role, I don’t dictate you have to do it ‘this way’. I didn’t like that as a dancer when a choreographer or director said “This is the way it is” without any input. I love dancer input, and they’ve been great about that. There are three casts, but I do not want them to do it the same. Of course the steps are there, [and] there’s a little bit of alternation between couple and such, but they have to make it their own, they have to feel it in the own way, the emotions and stuff. It’s no different here in many ways, and it’s important they take ownership of those roles. That’s my job here to make that happen and guide them to that.
M: I think today they are ready. They will listen to you and they will all be inspired in different ways. While, when I got here, it was like a copy, I had three casts that look the same. Because they were so used to that. That’s why it is so nice today, you can give them this, and they can develop it.
V: Well they’re not as worried about what’s the next step; what’s the next piece of choreography? Do I turn here, which way do I rotate? Now they remember the steps – now why are we doing the steps, what is the rapport, where are we looking. Erik Bruhn, a wonderful dancer, incredible, I idolized him, he came to San Francisco once and he saw my first ballet, and he said “Keep going, you have talent, but you need to tell them where to look, eyes have to be choreographed.” I never forgot that, ever, ever.
M: It’s funny, because I always talk about that. I always talk about the awareness, not only what they’re doing, but also what’s happening in the room. What do we want the audience to see and when. So timing is so important in order not to steal an important happening in another corner.
V: And timing of the group, of the corps in the back, they have to be part of the action. They just can’t be indifferent. Because if they focus on the action, the audience will focus on the action. We’re working on that too.
T: It’s actually a shift in aesthetics, I think. I used to stage work from Laban scores quite often. One of the comments people often make, about dances reconstructed from Laban, or even dances reconstructed from other sources was that “Well it’s just not the same”. “There is something wrong with it, there is something missing”. I mean quite often there were things missing and there were differences. One of the differences was the eyes of the people looking at it from [the eyes of the people looking at it] 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago, the dancers, and so on. But it’s quite interesting to hear you say that you want the work, and I know a lot of choreographers feel this way, that the steps are an armature more or less, and what the dancers do with that is the more interesting thing.
V: It’s interesting working with (because in a piece called Lambarena) African dance consultants and they taught me a lot, because they choreograph the eyes. I mean It is the focus and everything means something. Every piece of movement, it is not just the technique. It’s based on nature, it’s based on something. I learned that and that has helped me even in ballets like this. Definitely.
T: And in Chinese dance the eyes are very important.
V: Yes, definitely.
T: This is the second work you’ve staged for the Hong Kong Ballet. The first one was 20 years ago?
V: I was trying to think. I’m losing track of the time now in my old age. It was a while ago. Garry Trindler was the artistic director, the company wasn’t quite as large as this now and I don’t think this building was here.
V: I remember there was another studio . . .
T: Happy Valley. Performances were in City Hall.
V: Yeah, I remember that whole experience. It was great. The ballet is called Connotations, which was first staged for the San Francisco Ballet. And I remember Stella Lau, one of the leads in it that I am still in contact with.
T: She’s the chairperson of the organization that publishes this journal.
V: Oh, I just texted her this morning. (Laughing.)
T: Can you compare them, the two experiences?
V: Well equally. I don’t remember if I’d been in Hong Kong before that so this was like “Wow! This is amazing!” The company wasn’t as large . . . I don’t know how old the company is?
M: 37 years old.
V: So it wasn’t that old at that time.
M: 17 years old.
V: But there is a big difference now. I’ve have heard about Hong Kong Ballet. Who was the director before you?
M: John Meehan.
V: John Meehan. With him, and most certainly, when you came (to Madeleine). And you just kept here more and more about it, and seeing more advertising. I knew about Hong Kong Ballet, reading about them. Coming here, [the] big difference, like I was saying, it’s bigger, more crowded. But it’s still, equally wonderful. And again working coming back; I love coming back to companies and being invited back and seeing the development. And it’s just shot up amazingly. It is great being asked back, it is fabulous.
T: Maybe in five or six more years, there will be a new studio. (Laughing.)
M: (Knocking on the wooden table.) I heard that when I arrived here.
T: (To M) This [coming] summer you’re going to Houston Ballet Academy. I guess you will be directing the HBII (Houston Ballet II) as well. One of the thing that you have focused on while you’re here is dancers’ well-being, first of all. Bringing in the therapist, more formally and reserving at least some space for her at the studio. But you have also been concerned about dancer development. That was one of the things you mentioned about Val’s work. One of the reasons you brought up was very specifically to address dancers’ development, and you’ve talked about that before with me. That’s one of the strategies in your selection of work.
(To V) And you started ballet at a very late age, 19 or 20 years old. Yet you have made a resounding success. [Rudolf] Nureyev started at seventeen. One of my idols José Limón started at twenty-one.
M: [Léonide] Massine also started at eighteen.
T: For men, I think it’s not so difficult, if your athletic, there may be certain issues, but for women it may be different.
V: But I find now, it’s not as easy. I don’t think I could have done it at this time.
T: Me either. (laughing) I wouldn’t get into any company.
V: I’d be in a different career. So I find that even now, it’s almost impossible. It might not be impossible in general, but to be classically trained . . .
T: Talk about in terms of young men and young women who are aspiring to be dancers. What are the requirements nowadays for those aspirants to get into companies? What are your expectations?
V: I am not a teacher, so that’d be hard for me to even discuss, especially for early age.
M: Physique, of course, that’s the first thing you look at. Musicality. And then choreographers want open-minded dancers, they also have to not only dance classical ballet, today they really have to also do contemporary dance, which for some of them is really difficult because classical ballet is so much up up up up up, and contemporary is more that you should be able to have a variety where you put your weight.
But also the demand of artistry. It is amazing, I saw research, when they compared all the different sports categories to ballet. There was no sport that demaned so much from the human bodies as ballet. Because you have to have fast muscles, slow muscles; strength, right? Like in marathon, you have to do a hundred-meter runner (sprinter), weight lifter, and then on top of that you have to be a fabulous actor. No sport requires that. So it is not easy.
T: I saw recently posted on Facebook, a boy who is doing an extension that was beyond his ear. And there was quite a bit of discussion about it. Maggi Sietsma was the one who posted it. I can’t remember her teacher’s name who she said would say “it was vulgar”. And I said “Yeah, it is absolutely vulgar.” And someone else came in and said “Well, Sylvie Guillem could do it and still be artistic.”
M: Depends on how you use it.
V: That’s true
T: And that’s the consensus of the people. But it does seem to me as if technique is all, quite often. I think the young students think that technique is all.
M: The students think it but the choreographers and the artistic directors want more.
V: And that’s why it’s up to the choreographer and artistic director and coaches to guide that. I just came from a company where the young ballerina she can do everything, but it’s hard to get her . . . [to understand] that’s not always it. You’re beautiful, you can do this, but not all the time. It’s hard to get them out of that. Especially in a time there’s many schools that train just for competitions. That's troubling to me. That’s sometimes where that comes from as well, so you have to be really careful.
M: And now there are so many competitions out there. . .
V: And they are trained for that.
T: I find that young dancers coming out of the Academy and out of the studios, maybe because they are trained for the competitions like you say – they are doing the very specific things again and again – and want to do the quadruple turns, the legs passed the ear, inverted legs. And they have lots of technique, they are really well trained. They come out, they want to do all that. And when you ask them to do something simple, something quiet . . .
V: Or even to do what they are doing and put a character to it, it’s not easy. But then there are exceptions to that rule. There’s so many dancers that do come out of these schools, and they’re naturally phenomenal in that and they get it. Those are the ones that rise to the top I think, because you are also now required to do those roles, more and more now. Because companies asking for more story ballets, they want to get more audiences in, that’s part of it. My background is in theatre – theatre and music, to me that’s how I’ve always approached it. If I’d started dance earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have and not studied all this. But I come from a whole different background. So I’m always perplexed when, like I said, you don’t get a relationship, you don’t understand this. I sometimes bring in coaches, because I work with theatre companies too. I bring them in, to coach some of these the dancers. I think that’s important to bring in [coaches to] teach dancers music, teach dancer how to act, how to respond, because they’re required to do this and [they have] no musicality. But we’re always telling them to act, be musical, and they are not trained. They’re just trained in technique and not always on the music. So it is part of my background. Sometimes they don’t even get the pulse, because they’re doing too many turns and no one is saying “There’s music there too, it’s not wallpaper, there’s music.” So that’s part of the training, but my background is all that, so naturally I only do what I know, and this is what I do basically.
T: I am always reminded of a dancer I used to see perform when I was in New York, Francesca Corkle; the most beautiful dancer on stage, but her body wasn’t the best.
V: That’s the thing also. The best bodies are not always the best dancers. I always look at that. Sometimes they get weeded out of these schools before they get a chance.
T: I have a bit of scoliosis – if I were in these schools, I would have been out. (Laughing.)
V: Marcia Haydée didn’t have the perfect body, but she’s outstanding. Eleanor D’Antuono in ABT [American Ballet Theatre], they were stars.
T: I recently read that the Canadian Ballet did The Winter’s Tale. Who’s choreography is that?
M: Wheeldon, Chris[topher] Wheeldon
T: Yes. He has been doing story ballets. People have talked about his return to story ballets, it’s interesting. I think story ballets are always interesting and I think they do draw audiences as well, connect to audiences.
V: Yes, and finding different ways of doing the same stories, but not the same basic formula for ballet too, that’s the way to go, I think, right now too.
T: You drew us into the next question and that was talking about your music background, your theatre background and (to M) especially since you’re going off to Houston Ballet Academy, what do you think is ideal training for dancers? (To V) You brought in your experiences from outside of ballet. (To M) You’ve also have this remarkable career in directing ballet companies. This is your third company that you’ve directed?
M: Yes, if you count the little group [Stockholm 59 Degrees North] that I started.
T: You know that takes a lot of different skills than dancing on stage. How were you able, both of you, to translate or make use of those things, and what kind of things do you think students need in order to get that artistry, and in order to set them on the right track, as least to thinking about being artists instead of technicians.
V: I notice now, some of the most successful students coming up, they’ve been interested in more than just dance. They are more all-rounded, and the internet is helping that, to experience and want to take acting classes. A lot of them do now. And maybe study music. Also there are dancer career transitions organizations that right away gets to them. So they are studying as well, they are just more well-rounded. I think it’s important. I am also attracted to, because when I went into dance, I was so confident, I didn’t know that I was not that good. But I was so confident like “Here I am”, and I convinced everybody. I’ve really watched those dancers that just wanting to do it, and are there, and are in the studio – the ones that ask to do a role I go “Absolutely!” because that’s the only way I got roles. And just watching them [his peers in the company], and even I knew who was going to get injured, so I was smart enough to go “I’m going to learn that role” and I did, those amazing roles. I was never picked; I was always in the back. So I’m always the one that watches those in the back, they’re ambitious, and I’m in awe of those dancers that just say with what they want, because I never could do that. I always in awe of that, so I’m always like “Wow, that’s take a lot of guts. Give this person a chance.” But just be confident, speak up. Being well-rounded and just being confident, wanting to do it, wanting to be there, not because your parents make you take classes. That you really want to do this. You see it in the eyes. You see it in how they react in class and in rehearsals. “Why are you here? Doesn’t look like you want to be here.” I see that, I spot that a mile away, I’m sure you do too.
M: I think I agree with you and I was fortunate, because in Royal Swedish Ballet School, which is hundred percent funded by the government, so we didn’t pay anything, we had classical ballet every day, and then we had we tap dance, jazz, Graham technique, improvisation, Spanish, character, we did acrobatics, we had ballroom dancing. We got everything, and music of course. And we sang in operas – from the age of nine, I was singing in operas, because we had to do the children’s roles. So, I really got this fabulous education that helped a lot, and somehow it taught us to search for more. When I took over the artistic director in Stockholm, for acting classes I brought in someone from the Olympic team to mentally train them. Because half of the success is that you believe in yourself. A lot of the people look fantastic in the studio and when they go on to the stage and then lose everything.
V: They disappear.
M: Yeah. I brought in people that taught them about their physique, and how to eat and take care of their bodies. I also brought in artists in visual arts. I tried to give them input, and of course I can’t do more than serve it, like you said you saw who would use it, who would take the beat, who would develop it because you can’t just can only give to certain point. You can’t just shove it down to their throat, you can serve it on a silver plate, but then it is up to the person. That I tried to do. I think it’s important and that’s what I would like to with the students in Houston. I know they are already do quite a lot. I just want to continue on that, because that is exactly what I feel.
V: I would love to see that happen more often, and it just doesn’t. In the acting schools, they teach movement. I really wanted to have that happen in the school and it just never does.
M: It is great when you do.
V: It is amazing.
T: A lot of the liberal arts colleges where they have dance. They do teach music and physiology, and things like that, the unfortunate thing is that they don’t spend enough time on the technical side. I just want to ask you, for the production of Pinocchio, for example, who was the Italian composer? [Ottorino] Respighi?
T: I mean those are very interesting pieces of work. The decor was amazing, incredibly specific, had a strong aesthetic point of view. Did the dancers get into any of those things – research [them]?
M: No, but I think they still learned something and they might not always grab it immediately. When you are into a production, very seldom you can step outside, you just in the middle of it. And it’s not until you go out when the other cast is dancing, and you start to realize the whole picture, and what the choreographer wants. What is nice about the process of creating is, of course, that the dancers can be part of it, they can give so much more from themselves, and their input. I know that you are very open even it is an old piece. That’s why I always want to bring in the choreographer. An assistant can teach the steps but they don’t have the right to change things, and that’s why I want the choreographer to come and say “Ah, with this couple I want to do that. But with this couple, I am going to do this.” That’s what great. I am so happy that you are here to do that.
T: And for this story, this is a famous story [Lady of the Camellias], do the dancers have a background of it?
V: Well, I don’t know. I just been here for a couple of days, so I’m trying to push that – why they’re doing it, I haven’t gotten to the point of “Have you even ever read this?” (Laughing.)
M: I was thinking about this the other day, if it is in Chinese.
T: Show the [Greta] Garbo film [Camille].
V: But I always say, please see the Garbo film. I always stress that because it’s amazing. That was my point of my departure on this. But yeah, even visually, I think it is amazing.
M: This is good. Usually they are good at doing their research, I‘ll ask them.
T: I have a follow-up question on how music has helped you as a choreographer and as a dancer. I think it is important, for dancers. What role, for both of you this question, how you see music in dance?
V: Very valuable, it’s like a second skin so I never even thought about it. Musicality . . .
T: You studied piano?
V: No, saxophone and clarinet.
T: I studied saxophone and piano.
V: So whenever I hear saxophone, especially in Prokofiev and Shostakovich, I love it! Just the sound it, I think is amazing, maybe it’s because I played it.
T: I can’t listen to it, because I just feel the reed vibrating on my teeth. (Laughing.)
V: Ew (laughing) You’re right, that is weird. Thank you for that! (Laughing.)
I don’t understand when choreographers don’t know how to read music and have no interest in reading music. There was article about it, who was it? Just recently about young choreographers now – he’s very famous writer? Anyway, he really not liking the trend of pasting music. As if people choreographing as wallpaper, and [having] no regard to the score itself – and having help if you do. He just went off on that, and I agree on that. He wasn’t in the [New York] Times, but I just went “Wow, I’ve always thought that.”
T: Yes, me too.
V: Some choreographers will choreograph all the steps – and then I’d go “Where did the music ever come in?” And then [they would] paste it on the top and I never understood that. But that’s my opinion, I just think music is so important. But it also can be hindrance, if you follow it too much, it doesn't work. I did probably a year of that before I realized “Wow you’re mimicking it too much.” And thank God, I realized that, that I was doing too much of that. So at some point, you have to ignore it. You know the big big score and everything arrgghhh. Sometimes one person’s walking down stage with the largest part of the music. You don’t have a hundred people in unison running across the stage to match that music. Sometimes being opposite [of that], but you have to know that and not ignore it. And that’s, I think, very, very valuable.
M: Music is essential. Sometimes, when I go to competitions, all the artistic directors we’re sitting there saying “How is it possible? How can the even try to dance this variation without listening to the music?” We all are amazed that the coaches and teachers are not focusing on music. Because if they are out of the music, I can’t watch! I can’t watch! It’s horrible! I always try to say to the dancers, feel like your body is singing the music, you are part of it. If you really go with it, it is going to help you. It’s amazing. I hope I can work on that with the young dancers in the academy in Houston.
T: Colleen Lee is playing for the production. Is she rehearsing with you?
M: First day today! First dress [rehearsal] tomorrow. (Laughing.) We are very happy that she will be part of it, and very proud that we can use someone from Hong Kong to do this. It is like you said the other day, it’s a marathon.
V: Pianists who’ve played in the past, say it’s like playing three concerts in one night. I’m like “Ooookay.” In some companies actually they a shared night, one plays two, one plays the other. But it’s up to the pianist. I am always amazed, the majority of them go “No, I am playing the whole thing” I go “Okay! Alright!”
M: But there are a lot of notes in there. (Laughing.)
V: Gosh, that third act, it’s like nuts! Impossible!
T: It’s live music, and your dancers are used to live music, but the tempi sometimes are – they’re not [consistent] like recordings.
M: But that’s why it’s nice, because it’s here and now. That’s why if we work with the dancers to be open to music and to realize you have to do this together, it adds something extra in the air, that they have to be alert, they have to just follow it. It’s great, and also the pianist of course has to be aware of what’s happening. This is what’s nice with arts forms when they meet.
V: It’s not easy, because like I say in ballet, we don’t have weeks and weeks on stage. We only have two days to figure this out. Everyone has to be really prepared.
T: You opening next week? Or is it this week?
M: (pause) Yes!
V: Don’t say this week! (Laughing.)
M: (Laughing.) When you go into these last weeks, then I don’t know which week is it. It is like continuous.
T: But your dancers, they’ve become more and more use to listening to the music.