Hubert Burda Media

Forever Young

Val Caniparoli has come a long way from “never having a ballet class in his life” to an award-winning repertoire of over 70 choreographies.

Val Caniparoli cuts a curious figure. At 63, he has a full head of silvery hair, the taut frame of a disciplined athlete and a childlike propensity for humour: “I’ve just signed my 44th consecutive year [as a dancer] with San Francisco Ballet…and I’m only 30 — isn’t that amazing?” he laughs.
In town to assist the Singapore Dance Theatre with its September staging of one of his original works, Swipe, Caniparoli has been hard at helping the dancers smoothen out the wrinkles. “It’s a very technical piece. You definitely have to be a classically trained dancer to do it,” he says. “But imagine trying to do hip hop in pointe shoes! That’s difficult.”
If the words “hip hop” and “ballet” appearing in the same sentence surprises you, it shouldn’t — at least, not when it comes to Caniparoli. With its terse, loaded name, Swipe characterises the American’s unconventional approach to ballet and is just one example of how he’s making waves in the scene with his tradition-eschewing, genre-defying style. In Swipe, he imbues suggestions of hip hop’s “heavy, into-the-ground” moves seamlessly alongside ballet’s graceful gestures, all set to a pulsating score of classical and electronic music.
This fresh approach to the centuries-old art has earned the boundary-pushing American many an admirer, as well as detractors. But he remains unfazed. “You gotta create things that bring in other people, not just one generation,” he says. “You gotta keep it going.”
Swipe is but one of the ways that the native Italian is “keeping it going”. Caniparoli’s oeuvre is rife with such inventive creations. Take, for example, his award-winning Lambarena, which incorporates the heady beat of tribal drums and ethnic African dance with classic ballet, as well as The Lottery, where the performer of the wrenching final solo is chosen at the very last second on stage, after the dancers draw from an actual lotto.
Looking at Caniparoli’s repertoire, one might think that he has been dancing ever since he could put one foot in front of the other. But consider that ballet never crossed his mind as a youth (he wanted to be an actor) and his achievements become all the more remarkable.
As a Music and Theatre major at Washington State University, it was only after a chance workshop with a travelling ballet company that stirred Caniparoli’s interest in dance. There, he was talent-spotted by an instructor, who suggested that he start taking classes. And — to his parents’ chagrin — that was exactly what he did in the middle of his third year of college. Later, a successful audition with the San Francisco Ballet landed Caniparoli a stint in the company’s School for aspiring dancers, and after a year of training, he was offered a full time contract with America’s oldest professional ballet company.
But how did Caniparoli, who “never in [his] wildest dreams” imagined he would pursue a career in ballet, handle his meteoric ascent?
The answer is simple. “Being naïve saved me,” he confesses. “Going into those classes and thinking I was really good — and I’m sure I wasn’t — I think it was my confidence that convinced others that I was good.”
Caniparoli attributes his willingness to experiment in the notoriously traditional art to the fact that he had such a “diverse” background. “Had I started in dance in the very beginning, I think I would have a more narrow vision of life and art in general,” says the self-proclaimed film noir buff. “But the fact that I did so many different things means that I have a different approach to dance, and of course, choreography.”
Today, after having collaborated with a slew of internationally acclaimed troupes in a career that has spanned over four decades, one might assume that Caniparoli has lost his initial wide-eyed wonderment, though it seems that isn’t quite the case.
“I’m still pinching myself: ‘I’m choreographing?’ Or I see a work I do and go: ‘Wow, did I do that?’ I can’t believe I’ve danced the roles I’ve danced. So even in my old age, I’m going: ‘How did this happen?’” he laughs. “I’m always living for the day, so I’m shocked that things have worked out as well as they have.”
Considering that Caniparoli is fully booked with engagements for the next two years that will take him all around the world — including future collaborations with the Singapore Dance Theatre — and the ever growing praise that receives upon each successful performance, we’d say that things have worked out well for him.
Swipe will feature in the Singapore Dance Theatre’s Masterpiece in Motion at the National University of Singapore’s University Cultural Centre Hall from September 12-13, 2014.