When Alexandre Dumas published his 1848 novel Lady of the Camellias, he certainly couldn't have known what it would spawn. There was a play by the same name. Then came Verdi's celebrated opera La Traviata, then was what stands as perhaps Greta Garbo's most famous title role in Camille. Then Obi-Wan Kenobi started singing rock songs in 19th-century Paris in Moulin Rouge, and a whole new generation was again introduced to the story of the consumptive courtesan and the vain efforts of a suitor who tries to rescue her.
COURTESY/CHRIS HARDY/SAN FRANSISCO BALLET
Now, Tulsa Ballet Theater brings the story of Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval to life again, this time to the always-stunning choreography of Val Caniparoli and the music of Chopin in Lady of the Camellias.
Caniparoli, former resident choreographer for TBT and a world-famous artist in his own right, brings the work back to Tulsa, and brings with him a long line of connections to the piece.
"Originally, it was commissioned by Ballet Florida, but I wasn't the original choreographer," Caniparoli said. "It was originally Norbert Vesak. He gave me my first professional job, and he was one of my teachers and one of the first choreographers I'd ever worked with."
The Vesak connection continued when Caniparoli just happened to run into him at an airport.
"I met him and his partner in the San Francisco airport once when they were going to New York to buy fabrics," he said. "He was showing me all these designs, and they went to New York, and on his way back, he died of a brain aneurysm at the New York airport."
With Vesak's death came the seeming death of Lady of the Camellias, but that didn't last very long.
"It was shelved for a year or two, but Ballet Florida had put all this money into starting the project," Caniparoli continued.
Eventually, his professional connection to Vesak led Ballet Florida to approach him to take it over. Caniparoli felt there was some sense of destiny involved, given his connections to Vesak and the source material.
"As an actor, I'd performed the role of Armand in the stage version, so I knew the story. Prior to that, Camille, with Greta Garbo, which is based on that same story, was one of my favorite movies of all time," he said. "All those connections, I just felt like it was meant to be, and I just had to do it."
Sure, someone else started the project, so there would need to be some changes made. But he was in.
"I did it in honor of this man I'd worked with," he said. "But I said, 'The designs are done, but this isn't my kind of scenario, and I want to do something a little different with the music.' I'm always in for a challenge, so I was like, 'Okay.'"
What he came up with is a piece that isn't yet 20 years old, but is a classic in the world of ballet, and for many reasons. As anyone who has seen a Caniparoli work can attest, the choreography is beautiful, stunning, and evocative. But dancers love the piece as much as audiences do. It's a challenge technically, but for a dancer like TBT principal Sofia Menteguiaga, who seems to be as much an actor as a dancer, there's also real emotion to be played, a challenge she relishes.
Menteguiaga plays Marguerite, the title role, and doesn't shy away from its difficulties.
"I have to say it's challenging," she said, her Argentine accent placing stressed syllables in unusual places. "It's hard, but in a way, the principal roles are always hard. They have hard technical things to do. Marguerite is hard because she has a lot of pas de deux, because she dances with Armand, but also with his father and also with the baron. She has a lot of work."
That said, Menteguiaga feels that the level of acting required makes the pressure of the technically difficult aspects much easier to navigate.
"I'm thinking and trying to tell a story, but all these emotions and the progression of the character are there," she said. "The technical things are not so much in my head. The technical things are hard, but the acting part makes you get out of your head so you're not thinking, 'This is hard.' I don't even really have to think about, 'Okay, now I have to make the people feel that I'm sad.'"
As if to punctuate what Menteguiaga said about the acting element of her role as Marguerite, Caniparoli pointed out one of the things he loves most about this work.
"It's still one of my favorite endings of all time," he said. "There's not one ballet step in the last five minutes." It's just Marguerite, alone, at the end of her life. It's hard work for the dancer, and not just emotionally.
"I want to find some antidepressant pills sometimes after I do it," Menteguiaga joked, but in an interview immediately following a full run-through of the piece, she is visibly exhausted and in pain.
LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS
"I broke my foot one month and a half ago," she said. "It was a stress fracture. It was one week before Nutcracker."
The idea of missing out on the role of Marguerite was more than she could bear, so she got to work on fixing herself.
"I put my idea in my mind that I don't know how, but I'm going to do this. I said, 'Okay, I have a month with the boot. This month, I will do everything that is in my hands to do this,'" she said.
After a month of taking care of the foot, staying in shape, and drinking milk ("You can't imagine all the crazy things that I did. I eat every single thing it says on the Internet to heal the bones -- milk and cheese, whatever.") she was able to learn the role under the tutelage of TBT ballet mistress Daniela Buson, and lo and behold, we have our Marguerite.
"It hurts, but I can do it," Menteguiaga said. "I think they're happy that I could do it. It's pretty painful, but the physical therapist says the bone is okay and that the pain is from the muscles and ligaments. So I just grit my teeth."
Despite the gritting of teeth, and despite all manner of balletic issues, the fact remains that TBT is an amazing company. Literally one of the best on Planet Earth.
When asked about TBT in relation to the myriad companies with which Caniparoli has worked, the choreographer is succinct: "TBT is way up there," he said. "I've known Marcello [Angelini, TBT's artistic director] and Daniela [Buson, his wife] for years, even before they came here. It's a great place, because he's created this great environment where you can try new things."
While Lady of the Camellias may be nearing her 20th birthday, in the world of ballets, she's still very, very new, so what she and her final five, dance-free minutes bring to the table are still also new and, dare we say, experimental. That isn't lost on Caniparoli, who sings Angelini's and TBT's praises pretty much at every opportunity, because to paraphrase what I said earlier, this is a kick-ass ballet company.
"The dancers that Marcello picks are versatile and willing to try new things, so it's a great place to do new works," Caniparoli said. "I just like the environment here. What they have here is pretty amazing. I mean, there are major cities, like Los Angeles, that can't or won't support their own ballet company. I just want people to know what they've got here."
Me, too, Val. Me, too. I've been singing this company's praises for years, but it's hard to make people listen to a dumbass writer with a rock music background.
Menteguiaga echoes Caniparoli's feelings, wrapping her praise in a love for the pieces she's been able to dance here since Angelini recruited her from South America.
"My first company was in Chile -- Ballet Santiago," she said. "I stayed there for nine years and learned so many things in that company. Then I went back to Argentina for a year because I was missing my family."
Along came Angelini, and suddenly, she was thinking of Green Country without really having any idea where or what it was.
"I was thinking maybe I'd stop dancing and just be with my family, and then this guy came with all these ideas, and 'You should call me.' I thought, 'Tulsa? I don't know where that is.' But he convinced me," she said with a laugh.
SOPHIA/LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS
Since her arrival, Angelini and TBT have done right by her.
"Seriously, I think that everything I've done in my two years here, I've loved. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated -- since I'm a kid, I was watching that ballet like, 'Oh my goodness, that's the most amazing thing in the world,'" she said, visibly giddy. "And we did it, and I danced the principal role. And then Romeo and Juliet and Rite of Spring. The things I've done here I love so much. And now this. I can't say that this is number one and that is number two. They're all number one. Maybe a couple are number two, but there is not even a number three. That's because Marcello and Daniela and I have the same taste."
Regardless of taste, irrespective of injuries through which one may be powering through, and without regard to pretty much anything else, Menteguiaga -- and Caniparoli, for that matter -- live for the ballet, and on varying levels, for our ballet.
And for Menteguiaga, that begins and ends not with ballet technique, but with the acting that allows her to tell a story.
"I just focus on my character," she said of her craft. "And after that, I'm not Sofia anymore. I'm Marguerite. And I'm feeling what she's feeling. I'm living a whole life in two hours."
Lady of the Camellias opens Friday night, Feb. 1 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and runs through Sunday. Performances are at 8pm on Friday and Saturday, with a 3pm Sunday matinee. Tickets range from $20 to $95 and are available through tulsapac.com or by phone at 918-596-7111.
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