Connecting with Boston Ballet’s ‘Lady of the Camellias’

From Garbo's "Camille" to Verdi's "La Traviata" to ballets by Sir Frederick Ashton and John Neumeier, the poignant 1848 tale "The Lady of the Camellias" by Alexandre Dumas fils has sparked a variety of adaptations. But inspiration took an unusual path in choreographer Val Caniparoli's "Lady of the Camellias," which Boston Ballet presents Feb. 26-March 8, on the occasion of the work's 20th anniversary.

Ballet Florida had commissioned a new ballet based on "Lady of the Camellias" from another choreographer, Norbert Vesak. The company had Vesak's concept, a scenario, a musical score, and costume fabric in hand when the choreographer died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. The company shelved initial plans, but approached Caniparoli two years later to take up the project, which would be his first full-length narrative ballet. The choreographer recalls, "So many things were already in place that it was both a gift and a challenge, since I have my own way of choreographing."


Caniparoli rearranged the romantic Chopin score of piano solos and concerti and adjusted the scenario to include some of his own ideas about the story, which traces the love affair between an ailing courtesan, Marguerite, and Armand, a passionate young man of privilege. Caniparoli made the work his own, and over the past two decades, the ballet has become one of his most enduring creations.

" 'Lady of the Camellias' is one of the great drama ballets, like 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Onegin,' " says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. It premiered in 1994 as a Ballet Florida/Ballet West co-production, and it has been performed by 10 companies in the United States and Canada since. Boston Ballet first performed it in 2004.

While choreographing "Lady of the Camellias," Caniparoli turned for inspiration to the classic 1936 Greta Garbo film "Camille." "I remembered from youth that I loved that movie, the way it was filmed, the characterizations," he recalls.


In fact, one of the most distinctive aspects of "Lady of the Camellias" is its internal drama and vivid characterizations. Anais Chalendard, one of four ballerinas cast in the role of Marguerite, says, "There is a lot of acting, but the way to express anger or happiness or sickness, he puts all that into the steps, and it's quite daring. It's very satisfying, really from the heart and soul." Marguerite's illness is deftly implied with a stagger step here, a drop of the torso there. In one beautifully constructed sequence, the character's delicate consumptive coughs are perfectly synched to halting flourishes in the music.

The drama unfolds most clearly through the wealth of pas de deux that Caniparoli weaves throughout the ballet. Erica Cornejo, who also performs as Marguerite, says, "All the pas de deux are really hard, with intricate steps and lifts. Some are very twisted and off-balance. He likes to work certain arm [positions] that aren't purely classical. And there is so much going on, not just the steps. So many things to think about, to remember, so many hair and costume changes, props. But this kind of ballet is so special, so emotional. You feel the music, and the story just takes you away."

At the heart of the ballet is the extraordinary bedroom pas de deux between Marguerite and Armand, notable for its nearly 10-minute length and elegant yet tricky partnering. Larissa Ponomarenko, who was nominated for the prestigious Prix Benois de la Danse for her performance as Marguerite in Boston Ballet's 2004 production, calls it "one of the most challenging duets in the repertoire in terms of length and intricacy, the way one sequence is threaded into another. It has quite demanding lifts that have to describe emotions that are so forceful, yet it has to look so light and smooth and effortless."


That was evident in a recent rehearsal in which Ponomarenko coached Chalendard and partner Eris Nezha through nuances of timing, placement, and emotional intent. They tackled the complicated logistics of spins that spiraled and dipped and soaring lifts in which Chalendard twisted up and over Nezha's shoulder before floating down as delicately as a wisp of smoke. All the while, their characters' emotions, from adoration to wistful vulnerability, subtly played across their faces as the two repeatedly came together and parted.

For Caniparoli, that sense of connection is key to the choreography's success. He says the most important element in all the pas de deux is not the steps but the rapport between the characters. "Erik Bruhn gave me the best advice," Caniparoli recalls. "He said you need to choreograph the eyes, where they are looking and why they are looking. That was a revelation."

Born in Benton, Wash., the award-winning Caniparoli came late to dance. He took his first dance class while studying music and theater at Washington State University, and was immediately hooked. He is best known for his four-plus decades with the San Francisco Ballet, serving over the years as both dancer and resident choreographer. It was for his home company that he choreographed his most popular work, the African dance-inspired "Lambarena," which is also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and has been performed by 25 companies around the world. One of America's most sought after choreographers, Caniparoli gets around.


He is especially excited to work again with Boston Ballet. "Mikko has done amazing things with the company," Caniparoli says. "The dancers are so good, so technically strong, they have the freedom to let go, [be] responsive to the drama, really tell the story."

With each iteration of "Lady of the Camellias," Caniparoli welcomes the chance to revisit the work, altering and embellishing movements, shifting music, streamlining. (Since the work's premiere, Caniparoli has cut it by nearly half an hour; it clocks in now at 2 hours and 15 minutes, including two intermissions.) He says, "I love diving back into something older. That's when the work starts, when you see it from far away. I'm still tweaking this ballet, going 'Let's eliminate that turn, let's try this.' Balanchine tweaked his ballets until he died. That will be me, too. I never want to be complacent."

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.