Tag Archives: Val Caniparoli

Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Extremely Close’, Extremely Good [REVIEW]

Alexander Meister-Upleger in James Sofranko's The Sweet By and By. Photo by Scoot & Kate Rasmussen 500px

Alexandra Meister-Upleger (center) in James Sofranko’s “The Sweet By and By”. Photo by Damion Van Slyke.

Grand Rapids Ballet – Extremely Close
Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Grand Rapids, MI
April 12-14, 2019

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

In the company’s first season under new artistic director James Sofranko, Grand Rapids Ballet appears to be continuing on the path of upward trajectory begun by former artistic director Patricia Barker now the director of The Royal New Zealand Ballet.

The company’s program Extremely Close, on Saturday, April 13 at their in-house Peter Martin Wege Theatre, was varied, well-balanced and top notch. GRB’s dancers never looked better with adroit performances rivaling some seen in the finest dance companies in North America.

The program opened with veteran dance maker Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House” created for San Francisco Ballet (where Sofranko was a soloist) in 2008.

Caniparoli, one of the most consistently brilliant dance-makers working today, created with “Ibsen’s House,” a choreographic jewel.  The ballet was inspired by five female characters taken from Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s plays; A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady from the Sea (1888), and Hedda Gabler (1890). Said Caniparoli, in an interview about the ballet, “Ibsen’s radical ideas about marriage, gender roles, and family relations shocked and outraged many of his contemporaries, and still hold resonance today.”

Cassidy Isaacson and Steven Houser in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo by Ray Nard 500px

Cassidy Isaacson and Steven Houser in Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House”. Photo by Ray Nard.

Danced to excerpts of Antonín Dvořák’s “Piano Quintet in A Major, Op 81” played live, the ballet had as a partial backdrop a large window frame with the dancers costumed in rich-looking, buttoned-up Victorian dresses for the cast’s five women and equally stiff suits for its five men by designer Sandra Woodall that suggested persons of privilege.

The ballet, an amalgamation of the aforementioned Ibsen plays’ themes and attitudes towards their heroines, unfolded as a series of vignettes expressing the emotions and attitudes each of the women with regard to the important personal relationships written about in the plays they appear in.

While it might be helpful in knowing these women’s stories in Ibsen’s plays, in some ways, it may also have been better not to as to not bring to the ballet expectations of the women’s character portrayals and those of others in the ballet.  Caniparoli’s choreography spoke volumes on its own.

Cassidy Issacson in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo by Ray Nard 500px

Cassidy Issacson in Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House”. Photo by Ray Nard.

“Ibsen’s House” began with a series of solos introducing each of the five women and laying out their particular demeanor starting with dancer Cassidy Isaacson as Hedda Gabler from Ibsen’s play of the same name.

Isaacson was riveting as the cold and callous Gabler who appeared determined to fight back the boredom and disappointments in her life. Costumed in a mauve and black dress, Isaacson performed Caniparoli’s sharp, illustrative ballet choreography with soul withering intensity. Her deliciously superior attitude then gave way to the worried nervousness of Yuka Oba as Nora Helmer from A Doll’s House.  Oba’s solo, like Isaacson’s, was expertly-crafted with a high level of technique and phrasing. Caniparoli, who choreographed GRB’s The Nutcracker, creates the types of ballets that GRB and its dancers can only benefit from in taking the company to the next level in its upward trajectory.

Alexander Meister-Upleger in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo by Ray Nard 500px

Alexandra Meister-Upleger in Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House”. Photo by Ray Nard.

Next, newcomer this season, Alexandra Meister-Upleger portrayed Helene Avling from Ibsen’s “Ghosts”.  The former Nashville Ballet dancer moved a bit like a prancing horse in a gesture-laden solo that the veteran dancer performed superbly. She was followed by Connie Flachs as the unfulfilled Ellida Wangel from “Lady of the Sea” in a swooping and swaying solo and GRB up and comer Madison Massera as the manipulative Rebecca West from “Rosemersholm”.

Yuka Oba and Nathan Young in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo by Ray Nard. 500px

Yuka Oba and Nathan Young in Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House”. Photo by Ray Nard.

The second half of the ballet paired the women with their male counterparts and sources of consternation in Ibsen’s plays. A series of dark and troubled pas de deuxs then further fleshed out the relationships between these characters. Most memorable was that of Oba and Nathan Young as the stern Torvald Helmer, her character’s husband in “A Doll’s House” who has found out she has been secretly stealing from him. The perfectly danced pas de deux filled with tension and peril left one  gripping at their seat watching it unfold.

Switching stylistic and emotional gears, the world-premiere of Sofranko’s “The Sweet By And By,” danced to lively jazz music by New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, was a charming spirit-lifter.

Levi Teachout, Nathan Young, and Adriana Wagenveld in James Sofranko's The Sweet By and By. Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen 500px

Levi Teachout, Nathan Young, and Adriana Wagenveld in James Sofranko’s “The Sweet By and By”. Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen.

The ballet followed main character Steven Houser as a carefree, life-of-the-party gent in a parade of bubbly dances with his large group of friends to the songs “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Down by the Riverside,” “By and By” and others.

Looking like frolicking characters from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Sofranko infused the ballet’s choreography with an energy and bravura that was pleasing.

Interjected into this world of glee were moments of melancholy. Houser’s flirty and infectiously positive character was, underneath that exterior, quite lonely for companionship and a meaningful romantic relationship. After several tries in the ballet, he found that companionship in a female friend portrayed by dancer Gretchen Steimle.

Steven Houser and Gretchen Steimle in James Sofranko's The Sweet By and By. Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen 500px

Steven Houser and Gretchen Steimle in James Sofranko’s “The Sweet By and By.” Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen.

Truly a vehicle for Houser’s wide-ranging talents as a dancer, he simply killed it and received a rousing ovation at ballet’s end.

The program concluded with its namesake work “Extremely Close” by former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer and resident choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo.

Choreographed in 2008 (and making the rounds to several regional ballet companies next season), the contemporary dance work was Cerrudo’s second-ever and smacked of a young dance-maker looking to make a big impression — He did.

Emily Reed and Isaac Aoki in Alejandro Cerrudo's Extremely Close. Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen 500px

Emily Reed and Isaac Aoki in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close.” Photo by Scott & Kate Rasmussen.

Set to music by Philip Glass and Dustin O’Halloran, the work began in silence with white feathers slowly drifting down from the rafters and piling up on the stage floor like fluffy snow. A cast of 8 dancers in socks cut paths in the feathers with their dancing, launching into prolonged slides across the floor as if ice lay below the surface of feathers. Into this scenic dreamland, Cerrudo also added door-sized moving walls that the dancers then appeared and disappeared from behind as they glided in lines across the stage. GRB’s dancers were brilliant in their timing pulling off these visual effects.

Yuka Oba and Matthew Wenckowski in Alejandro Cerrudo's Extremely Close. Photo by Damion Van Slyke 500px

Yuka Oba and Matthew Wenckowski in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close”. Photo by Damion Van Slyke.

Led by dancers Yuka Oba and Matthew Wenckowski, GRB’s dancers performed Cerrudo’s grounded movement language that is so associated with his works and that of Hubbard Street, marvalously. The breathtaking work ended with Wenckowski at the front of the stage pulling up the stage floor over his head and running toward the rear of the stage a la the billowing fabric effect used in choreographer Jiri Kylian’s masterwork Petite Mort.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2015-2016 home season a mix of favorites and soon-to-be favorites

Photo courtesy of MLive.com

Yuka Oba and Stephen Sanford in a scene from “The Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy of MLive.com.

By Steve Sucato

After a successful tour this past week to artistic director Patricia Barker’s old stomping ground Seattle, Washington, where she was a star at Pacific Northwest Ballet for two decades, Grand Rapids Ballet returns to the “Furniture City” this weekend to kick off its 2015-2016 home season. As in Barker’s past five seasons as GRB director, local audiences can expect a mix of top flight contemporary and classical works danced by one of the nation’s most rapidly rising dance companies.

Here’s a look:


October 16-18, 2015 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

A reprise of popular GRB repertory works, Pacifica includes choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “balloon-tastic” Written & Forgotten (2014), a humorous, sometimes poignant look at childhood memories, and Penny Saunders’ illuminating Slight (2015) of which Barker says: “The whole thing is how light and shadows change the look of the body, movements and mood. It’s quite eerie and quite cool.”  Also on the program will be choreographer David Parsons’ clever masterwork The Envelope (1984), a delightfully zany commentary on human social structures, and excerpts from Mario Radacovsky’s turbulent Beethoven (2015) that closed last season.


December 11-13 & 18-20, 2015 @ DeVos Performance Hall

Last year’s spectacularly re-imagined holiday classic returns with a few minor tweaks. The magical production with choreography by Val Caniparoli and set design by Polar Express author Chris Van Allsburg and Eugene Lee, brings with it Broadway-style production values, a legendary Tchaikovsky score played by the Grammy-nominated Grand Rapids Symphony and some great dancing. One of the best regional The Nutcracker productions to come along in years, it is surely the stuff childhood memories are made of.


[World Premiere] February 12-14 & 19-21, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

Not to be confused with her 2013 production of Dangerous Liaisons for Augsburg Ballet, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa creates a brand new telling the tale of scheming French aristocrats The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. The two rivals and ex-lovers use seduction to humiliate and degrade others all-the-while boasting of their cruel and manipulative talents. Of the new 80-minute production in two acts Ochoa says it will more closely follow the plotline of the 1989 movie adaption starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich rather than author Durand Neveu’s original 1782 book series.

The characters in Ochoa’s new Dangerous Liaisons come out of a time period in the French aristocracy where the powerful and wealthy became bored with parlor games and turned to more sinister games of the heart. Their intrigue and eventual comeuppance should make for a rather unique dancegoer experience.


March 18-20, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

The Best of MOVEMEDIA will revisit some of the most popular works presented in the annual cutting-edge dance series that began five years ago. They include Brian Enos’ Nae Regrets, Thomas Dancy’s You Gotta Be Kiddin Me and others, plus a brand new work by choreographer Penny Saunders.


[World Premiere] – May 6-8 & 13-15, 2016 @ Peter Martin Wege Theatre

Closing out the season is will be a new ballet adaptation of Charles Perrault’s classic fairytale Cinderella. Choreographed by former Boston Ballet resident choreographer Bruce Wells and set to Johann Strauss II’s “Aschenbrödel” (Cinderella), the classical ballet will be a lighter take on the timeless tale.

“It is very important for our company and school to come together and have a collaborative look,” says Barker. “Cinderella is another production like The Nutcracker we can do that. Having it be like a second Nutcracker to us is one of our big goals.”

Audiences will notice several new faces this season as ten new dancers join GRB’s ranks. They are: New Jersey-native Branden Reiners, Illinois-native’s Julia Turner and Matthew Wenckowski, Missouri’s Thomas Seiff, Seattle’s Grace Haskins and Georgia’s Nigel Tau. The company’s new trainees are: Charlotte Logeais (Paris, France), Elise Gillum (San Jose, CA), Derek Brockington (Holland, MI) and Adriana Wagenveld (Bayamon, Puerto Rico). Promoted from apprentice or trainee to company member are: Morgan Frasier, Emily Rose, Caroline Wiley, Jack Lennon and Hannah Potter. Departures from last season include dancers Leah Slavens, Jessica Smith, Keely Lytton, Vanessa Cielle, Yassui Mergaliyev and audience favorites Hannah Wilcox, Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida, Monica Pelfrey, and Stephen Sanford.

For more information and tickets visit grballet.com or call the Grand Rapids Ballet box office at (616) 454-4771 ext. 10

All graphics courtesy of Michael Auer, Grand Rapids Ballet

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‘Polar Express’ Author and ‘Wicked’ Designer join with Choreographer Caniparoli and Director Barker to create new ‘Nutcracker’ for Grand Rapids Ballet

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet's "The Nutcracker."

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”

By Steve Sucato

When it comes to Christmas holiday season entertainment in the U.S., The Nutcracker ballet ranks high on the list. The magical tale of a young girl who dreams of a heroic handsome prince that whisks her off to a land of sweets is a favorite of children and adults alike.  So when former Pacific Northwest Ballet star Patricia Barker took over as artistic director of Grand Rapids Ballet Company in 2010, mounting a new Nutcracker production to replace the 30-year-old production the company had been doing was at the top of her to do list.  

For most ballet companies, The Nutcracker is the only real cash cow in their repertory and is their most visible calling card within their community and beyond.  For Barker, who in the past four years has taken Grand Rapids Ballet Company from a regional mainstay to a nationally recognized company with grand aspirations, that meant thinking big when it came to a new Nutcracker production.

The choreographic origins of the company’s current Nutcracker production are somewhat murky says Barker.  One thing she did know was that since it debuted in the early 1980’s, the production had been altered numerous times and the sets and costumes were falling apart.

“We needed something new that was unique for us,” says Barker. “Something that represents this company now and the Grand Rapids community and puts our stamp on the arts in Michigan.”

What better way to make that kind of a statement than with a new million dollar Nutcracker production featuring the creative talents of Grand Rapids’ favorite son Chris Van Allsburg, The Caldecott Award-winning illustrator and author of “The Polar Express” and “Jumanji” to collaborate on the set design with Tony Award-winning (Bernstein’s “Candide,” Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” and “Wicked”) stage designer Eugene Lee.  Add to them Award-winning choreographer Val Caniparoli, who has created ballets for Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet and the creative talents of Barker, and you have the formidable team behind one of the most anticipated new Nutcracker productions since perhaps Alexei Ratmansky’s new production for American Ballet Theatre in 2010.

For this new production that world-premieres December 12 at Grand Rapids’ DeVos Performance Hall  and runs through December 21, Barker says she used as a guidepost another Caldecott Award-winning illustrator and author’s vision of The Nutcracker ballet; that of Maurice Sendak.  The “Where the Wild Things Are” author collaborated on the design for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 1983 Nutcracker choreographed by Kent Stowell of which Barker starred in the 1986 movie adaptation; Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.  That production bids farewell this December after 31-years in PNB’s repertory.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet's "The Nutcracker."

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”

Barker says she approached Sendak for advice and to introduce her to friend Van Allsburg in 2012. Sendak’s untimely death a couple of weeks later left Barker to approach Van Allsburg on her own about the project, which at first Van Allsburg was reluctant to take on saying in a recent interview: “It’s intimidating for an artist to walk down a path so well-trod.”

One thing working in Barker’s favor was that Van Allsburg and family had their own history with The Nutcracker ballet. His daughter danced in Festival Ballet Providence in Rhode Island’s production for many years, even performing the lead role of Clara.  That history, along with some prodding from wife Lisa and others convinced Van Allsburg to join the project.

Van Allsburg says his illustrations/designs for the Grand Rapids production owe something to his daughter and the many years attending Nutcracker ballet performances.

A friend of Van Allsburg’s, set designer Eugene Lee was brought on board to realize Van Allsburg and Barker’s vision of the ballet’s design with an eye on touring the production.

“It was a give and take on the design,” says Barker.  “Each of us got and had to give in on certain things we wanted. What audiences will see is a well thought out production full of details.”

The last piece of the puzzle then was selecting who would choreograph the ballet. Barker says Caniparoli was her first and only choice. She had worked with him and danced in his ballets in the past. “His talents in telling a story are incredible,” says Barker.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet's "The Nutcracker."

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”

It was also a bonus for Barker, who had never mounted a production for this enormity, that Caniparoli had two prior Nutcracker productions under his belt (Cincinnati Ballet’s in 2001 and Louisville Ballet’s in 2009) so he knew the ins and outs of organizing and scheduling as well as the timing of music.

“How many choreographers have done three different versions of the ballet? Each time I do one I think I am getting better at it,” says Caniparoli.

Like the Sendak/Stowell production, Barker says she looked to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original 1816 tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” to develop the storyline.  She turned to Austrian husband and former dancer Michael Auer who reads and speaks fluent German for help in reading Hoffmann’s original German text.  Auer’s family had a German language version of the “Nussknacker und Mausekönig” handed down from his great great grandmother that he, his mother, and Barker read and took notes from. “The depth of the story is enormous,” says Barker.

The result is a ballet version that is pretty true to the Hoffmann tale but retains much of what Barker loves in a Nutcracker production.

“There are many great Nutcracker productions out there,” says Barker.  “As long as it tells a story you can follow from beginning to end, takes you on a journey, teaches you something, and you leave the theater smiling and wanting to come back and see it again, that is when you have done a great job with a Nutcracker ballet. That is what I wanted to create for Grand Rapids Ballet.”

The ballet is set during the Regency era in the early 1800’s. It takes place Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum family home in Vienna.  As in Sendak/Stowell production and countless others, Barker chose to go with the story’s protagonist Clara (Marie, in the original version) as a young girl in the ballet’s first act that  is then transformed into an adult dancer after the battle scene.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet's "The Nutcracker."

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”

For the most part though, the familiar story will unfold as many traditional ballet versions of “The Nutcracker” do.

One thing Barker says Sendak implored her not to do in her new Nutcracker was to let Clara dream of a handsome prince and then let the Sugar Plum Fairy dance with him. “No girl would ever dream of a handsome prince and let him dance with somebody else,” says Barker.

Another thing Barker wanted this production to steer clear of was gratuitous humor.

“It’s not a comedic ballet. There can be humor in it, which there is in this version, but the battle scene is a real battle,” says Barker.  “Clara is fighting for the Nutcracker’s life.”

The ballet’s choreographic style is classically based says Caniparoli. “The challenge for me is to make it fresh while retaining that classical base and adding in my style,” says Caniparoli. “You want to be innovative but not make it crazy. It has to appeal to children and adults alike and has to last year after year.”

Like Barker with the Sendak/Stowell production, Caniparoli says he looked to his past and the familiar Christensen brothers’ Nutcracker, first staged in 1944 for San Francisco Ballet that he had been a part of as a dancer. That along with the two prior versions of the Nutcracker he choreographed provided inspiration for his work on GRBC’s new production.

Caniparoli says he came into the creative process after most of the designs for the ballet had been completed.  That, he says, helped shape some of his choreographic choices, especially in the transitions between scenes.  But for the most part the former music major says Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for the ballet was the most important guide in his choreography.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet's "The Nutcracker."

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg for Grand Rapids Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”

The Grand Rapids Symphony will once again join forces with GRBC and play the score live at all of The Nutcracker performances.

The production’s large cast will feature all 32 of GRBC’s company members, apprentices and trainees along with a bevy of students from the Grand Rapids Ballet School.

As for the differences in working with professional dancers and students, Caniparoli says: “My motto is challenge the students from the beginning and make them come up to a level. Even if they don’t get it the first year, they will start getting it. I never want to dumb things down.  I want their challenge to match that of the professionals in many ways.”

While classically based, Caniparoli says the popular “Snow” scene and the “Waltz of the Flowers” will have a romantic feel to them.  Audiences can also expect a bit of magic in the form of onstage illusions such as the transformation from young Clara to the adult “Dream Clara”.

With all new sets, costumes and choreography from such a talented team, it is safe to say Grand Rapids Ballet’s new The Nutcracker production will be the stuff new family traditions and childhood memories will be made of.

Says Barker: “We have a great Nutcracker on our hands.”

Grand Rapids Ballet presents the world-premiere of The Nutcracker, 7:30 p.m., Dec. 12-13 and Dec. 19-20; 2 p.m., Dec. 13-14 and Dec. 20-21. DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW., Grand Rapids, MI. Tickets: $20-54. (616) 454-4771, grballet.org or Ticketmaster.

On Dec. 11 Grand Rapids Ballet will also present The Nutcracker Premiere Gala benefiting Hospice of Michigan at Steelcase Ballroom, DeVos Place. Tickets: $150-250. Contact Kyle Amanda Dutkiewicz at (616) 454-4771 ext. 11 or kyled@grballet.com.

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