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BACH TO AFRICA: KC Ballet takes up choreographer’s daring fusion of ballet, African dance

It’s an irresistible image, almost like a scene from a Werner Herzogmovie: the aging Albert Schweitzer — theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Johann Sebastian Bach biographer — sitting in his bungalow playing Baroque organ music, while outside his windows the sounds of Africa buzz and sing. Such was the inspiration for Lambarena, an ingenious CD released in 1995 that infused the music of Schweitzer’s beloved Bach with the flavors and rhythms of equatorial Africa — a kaleidoscopic “soundscape” created as a tribute to Schweitzer by French composer Hughes de Courson and Gabonese singer-composer Pierre Akendengué. Based on a concept by Mariella Berthéas, the disc took its name from the village in Gabon — Lambaréné, nowadays a small city — where Schweitzer established his famous hospital.

Choreographer Val Caniparoli was electrified by the disc when a friend sent it to him from Paris, and he knew it was perfect for a new piece he’d been asked to create featuring San Francisco Ballet prima ballerina Evelyn Cisneros. “I just fell in love with it. There was no question that I wanted to use it,” the 58-year-old choreographer said on the phone recently. Thus was bornLambarena, one of the most inventive, ambitious, and at times, controversial attempts to bring African and traditional Western styles of dance together. It received an acclaimed premiere at San Francisco Ballet in 1995 and since then has been performed by as many as 20 companies worldwide. Lambarena forms part of the Kansas City Ballet’s winter program February 25th through the 28th, together with José Limón’s Moor’s Pavane and Robert Hill’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

“It’s just a celebration of the joys of dancing, music, cultures, collaborations,” Val says of the piece. “There’s no hidden meaning.” One critic called Lambarena “a bold and heady cocktail of classical ballet and West African dance forms” that “breaks all the rules while simultaneously revitalizing classical ballet’s canonized repertory.” Unlike the CD, Val’s piece was not intended as a piece about Schweitzer. Nevertheless he was delighted when no less of an authority than Rhena Schweitzer Miller, Schweitzer’s daughter, came to see the ballet in San Francisco and rushed backstage afterward to congratulate him. “She was in tears,” Val says. “She told me, ‘you’ve never been there, but you captured the tone and the mood and the spirit of my father and of Lambaréné perfectly.’ That was exciting, a true stamp of approval.”

Not all critics have embraced the piece as warmly, and the nature of the discussion has raised interesting issues. Some have found the mixture of styles disconcerting; others have balked at the use of clapping, chanting and African drumming in Bach. “I hit a wall with many Bach purists, as you can imagine,” Val says with a laugh. The piece is not just about African dance, he says, it’s about varying styles coexisting peacefully. The score is a mix of classical and Africa styles, he says, “and I wanted the choreography to be the same thing: I wanted to show that you can do either kind of movement to both kinds of music.”

That mixture has been underscored by Sandra Woodall’s brilliant scenic and costume designs, with warm glowing colors and fabrics that place the patterns of African textiles on the shape and cut of classical design. The dance itself is an amalgam of Val’s ballet training and dance straight from Africa: In creating the movement, he worked side-by-side with Senegalese choreographer, ethnomusicologist and dance expert Zakarya Sao Diouf and dancer-teacher Naomi Gedo Johnson-Washington. This heady mix of cultural elements has spawned a useful educational component: Lambarena has been taken up by school programs across the country aimed at young people “who might not have been exposed to dance otherwise,” Val says. “It has become “an agent for learning about African dance, musical instruments, textiles, and culture.”

Lambarena is just one of countless examples of the versatility and breadth of Val’s outlook and choreography. Born and raised in Renton, Washington (outside of Seattle), he began college with the intention of studying music and theater, but the moment he took his first dance class his whole world changed. This relatively late start in dance “made it difficult as a dancer, but I think it helped me as a choreographer,” he says. “My eyes were more open.” He joined the San Francisco Ballet in 1973 and served as a resident choreographer there during the 1980s.  Thirty-seven years later, he remains under contract with the company he considers home. He says he fell in love with choreographing early on. “The bug hit me right away. Even as a dancer, when I wasn’t dancing in a ballet, I’d be hanging around watching all these different choreographers work. Christensen, Béjart, Kylián. I was lucky to be in a company that did a lot of variety.” Val has created pieces for dozens of the world’s leading companies, including Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Ballet West (resident choreographer 1993-1997), Washington Ballet, Israel Ballet, the State Theatre Ballet of South Africa, and Tulsa Ballet (resident choreographer since 2001). His work fuses ballet with modern dance, ethnic dance, social dancing, and ice skating.

The Moor’s Pavane, also on the Ballet’s winter program, will offer a treat to followers of the company. José Limón’s searing piece based loosely on Othello will feature longtime local favorite Christopher Barksdale in the title role. Christopher, who retired from the Ballet at the end of the 2008-2009 season, has kept busy with a career as dancer, actor and singer — yes, he’s a gifted tenor, and in addition to musical theater has starred in operatic productions. A protégé of the late Todd Bolender, Christopher began dancing at ten and studied at New York’s School of American Ballet before joining the Kansas City Ballet. It’ll be great to see him back!

The Ballet’s performances are February 25th through the 28th at the Lyric Theatre. For tickets and information call 816-931-2232 or go to kcballet.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.


Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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