[ENG] Transcript - Full Conversation with Madeleine Onne and Val Caniparoli

(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.

T: No.

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 . . .