An interview with Nils Christe and Val Caniparoli: the choreographers of Singapore Ballet’s upcoming performance Masterpiece in Motion

An interview with Nils Christe and Val Caniparoli: the choreographers of Singapore Ballet’s upcoming performance Masterpiece in Motion

The recent pandemic was a period of transition that drove many to reinvent themselves. One of the more exciting reinventions we witnessed came from our very own national dance company, Singapore Dance Theatre. In late 2021, the company rebranded itself to fit the skin that it had grown into.

Artistic director Janek Schergen says “During the last few years, the company’s identity seemed to strengthen through our repertoire, dancers, and performances. It led to the decision to rename ourselves Singapore Ballet to best reflect the nature of what we aspire to be for our audiences. The concept of becoming where we had always intended to be, was our metamorphosis.”  

Despite the name change, Schergen reassures that audiences can expect the same memorable artistic experience they have come to enjoy. “We have always balanced our repertoire between classical ballets, international neoclassical masterpieces, and newly created choreographic works made especially for our performances here in Singapore, as well as our tours. That won’t change,” he says.

This is made exceptionally clear in Masterpiece in Motion, the second performance of this year’s line-up which runs from 29 to 31 Jul at Esplanade Theatre. It will feature three emotive and dramatic pieces: Quiver, Ibsen’s House, and Organ Concerto byrenowned choreographers Timothy Rushton, Val Caniparoli, and Nils Christe, respectively.

1. Quiver

A brand-new piece crafted just for Singapore Ballet, Quiver is an evocative visual feast of sharp angles and patterned shadows. It is the brainchild of Rushton, a British choreographer and the former artistic director of the Danish Dance Theatre.

Singapore Ballet staged the world premiere of Evening Voices in 2018, another unique creation by Rushton.  

2. Ibsen’s House

An intense, emotionally-charged ballet centred on the secrets and stories of five fictional characters of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, who is best known for changing the theatrical landscape of his time by writing about the moral quandaries of real middle-class women. For the first time in Asia, Caniparoli, an American dancer and choreographer, masterfully brings this drama of bourgeois realism to life with his ballet centred not just on one, but five of Ibsen’s heroines.

A quick look at Ibsen’s House by Caniparoli, performed at the San Francisco Ballet in 2013.

3. Organ Concerto

A powerful and dynamic piece choreographed for Singapore Ballet in 2012 by Christe, an acclaimed Dutch choreographer, the performance is arranged to Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto – a lively music score that fluctuates from loud, violent moments to softer, more emotional ones. The ballet matches its energy and features twelve couples as they take to the stage with strong, graceful movements interspersed with dramatic leaps and jumps. 

Nils Christe’sOrgan Concerto was last staged at the Singapore Ballet in 2017. After its pandemic-driven hiatus, it returns to the stage this July.  

The A List spoke to choreographers Caniparoli and Christe to learn how they brought their pieces to life and what audiences can expect from their performances.

What was the inspiration behind your piece for Masterpiece in Motion 2022?

Val: I studied Ibsen in college, where I majored in Theatre, English and Music. So I knew a lot about Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. Fast-forwarding from there, I was working with the San Francisco Ballet when I was then invited to the American Conservatory Theatre to create the choreography for the tarantella dance in Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. And that sort of sparked this idea of reinvestigating Ibsen and his plays. So, that was sort of the inspiration for that.

I thought it would be interesting to go back to Ibsen and research this, learning more about this period when he challenged the Victorian morals of women with his writing. He was considered one of the first feminists of his time, even though he vehemently denied that title. And I was intrigued by that.

He wrote so many great characters that instead of focusing on characters from just one play, I took 5 different couples from his plays and combined their stories into one piece.

Nils: As for all of my ballets, the inspiration always comes from the music. This is not a narrative ballet – it’s purely a music ballet. First of all, I have to fall in love with the music and play it again and again till I know it inside out. From there, the choreography slowly develops. I never choreograph the steps at home – I always choreograph in the studio with the dancers and this is something not every choreographer does. The only thing I do beforehand at home is plan the structure of the piece, like where the solos and duets go.

(Organ Concerto) is also the only ballet I ever made to organ music. In general, organ music is not so easy to choreograph to. Quite often, it’s rigid and unmusical. But this piece by Francis Poulenc is an exception. It is such a beautiful piece of music, and it’s also music that’s really suited to dancing.

What do you think makes your piece a “masterpiece in motion”? 

Val: In many ways, it’s going to stretch the dancers. Not only is the technique difficult, but the acting qualities required to differentiate between the characters are going to take a lot of soul-searching. It’s not just choreography and steps, and it’s not a linear story ballet. It’s really going to rely on the dancers to distinctly portray the characters.

A sneak peek behind the scenes of the dancers rehearsing Ibsen’s House for the upcoming performance.

Nils: This ballet is quite a classical style. The women are all in pointe shoes, and this is something the dancers of Singapore Ballet are very good at. Their technique en pointe is strong. This has an enormous influence on the vocabulary of the movements in this piece. It has influenced the style and also the technique displayed. Also, nothing has been modified since its original staging. This piece is exactly how we made it 10 years ago, and that is not something that you see often. 

The dancers rehearsing Organ Concerto for the upcoming performance.

What is one element about your piece that you would like to highlight?

Val: The costumes for Ibsen’s House are stunning. They are of the period but are made to be lighter in weight to flow beautifully with the movements. These are crucial for the characterisation of the five couples in this piece. 

Kimberly Marie Olivier in Ibsen’s House, performed at the San Francisco Ballet. The Victorian-era costumes in Ibsen’s House are just as eye-catching as the movements.
Kimberly Marie Olivier in Ibsen’s House, performed at the San Francisco Ballet. The Victorian-era costumes in Ibsen’s House are just as eye-catching as the movements.

Nils: Organ Concerto has a very impressive and beautiful set. The backdrop is an enlarged, realistic organ. It is quite something to see and experience in person. 

The Singapore Ballet performing Organ Concerto for Ballet Under the Stars in 2017.
The Singapore Ballet performing Organ Concerto for Ballet Under the Stars in 2017.

What is the experience you want your audience to walk away with from Masterpiece in Motion?

Val: If they don’t know the plays, I hope this will encourage them to either read them or go see the film or theatre versions. They’re quite extraordinary with their depictions of the couples and the women’s rights issues they touch on. The piece is also a stunning work to look at with amazing music. All in all, I want audiences to just enjoy the experience.

Nils: It’s always satisfying when the audience enjoys watching the ballet. Whether it is a ballet with humour, drama or melancholy, it is important that it touches them and grabs their attention. I hope this piece will do that.

Get tickets to Masterpiece in Motion here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(Photos: Singapore Ballet, Erik Tomasson)

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