With over 90 original ballets under his belt performed across more than a dozen countries the world over, San Francisco-based choreographer Val Caniparoli undoubtedly thrives in the collaborative atmosphere of the ballet studio. This season marks Caniparoli’s return to Smuin for his second world premiere for the Company: If I Were a Sushi Roll. This singular work incorporates strong scenic and design elements that definitively distinguish it from the choreographer’s creations previously performed by the Company (Swipe (2012) and Tutto eccetto il lavandino (2015)).
While the ballet world is notoriously steeped in tradition, Caniparoli doesn’t play by the rules. In fact, he’ll be the first to admit that, upon starting as a choreographer, he simply “didn’t know what those rules were.” With an anomalous introduction to the world of ballet at age 20, Caniparoli credits a healthy amount of naivete, coupled with “general life experience” and his collegiate studies in music as having shaped him into the choreographer he is today. When tasked with a new commission, Caniparoli often finds his primary source of inspiration in those he works with and in the act of creation itself. “As a dancer, I was inspired by choreographers that would come in and let the dancers have some say, some freedom of expression,” Caniparoli recalls. Consequently, he’s now “inspired by those dancers that love to be collaborators.” He finds returning to create a new work for Smuin just a few years following his last original work for the Company to be an immensely satisfying experience. Caniparoli’s existing relationships with his collaborators allow him a certain amount of freedom when tackling a new commission. “What’s great about being asked back to a company you’ve worked with before is that they know you; they know how you work, they know your style.” This familiarity frequently aids him in the creative process; he bemusedly shares that “some of the Smuin dancers know where I’m going before I go there—I love that!”
Music is consistently at the heart of Caniparoli’s work and If I Were a Sushi Roll is no exception. “When I’m inspired by the music itself, and that brings out the ideas, that’s the most ideal.” His “multi-layered” interpretation of composer Nico Muhly’s score Confessions, created in collaboration with the Faroese singer Teitur, is about both everything and nothing. As the choreographer explains it, the inspiration for the score itself is the mundane. “Whether it’s a landscape in Berlin, a relationship, or what [someone] had for dinner—it’s the mundane things that people put on YouTube.” While researching Confessions, Caniparoli discovered several music videos created to accompany Muhly’s score. “I was inspired by this video which was just a camera panning over a sushi bar in Japan [with] everyone eating sushi—that’s all it was,” Caniparoli explains. He found further inspiration in both the lyrics as well as the composer’s very contemporary view of Baroque music. As for the distinct title of the ballet? Caniparoli reveals that “one of the lyrics in one of the sections is literally ‘If I were a sushi roll,’ and describing what [that] would be like.”
If I Were a Sushi Roll stands as an interpretation of Muhly’s music, rather than a distinctly abstract work. The choreographer characterizes it as “a more grounded, more human piece.” “I don’t want [the audience] to think they have to think any specific way,” he insists. “I want them to enjoy themselves, to enjoy the music, the choreography, and the dancers; and to come up with their own ideas, thoughts, and interpretations of what I’ve done.”
As a seasoned choreographer, Caniparoli now finds himself exploring different ways of working as he creates new ballets and “connects the dots,” as he calls it. “That’s always the choreographer’s job: to have a beginning, middle, and end” to each piece, and to seamlessly interweave the many creative elements involved in a production into one cohesive piece. A choreographer’s work is never quite over, and each ballet is continuously fine-tuned as it is performed. Caniparoli will be the first to tell you that it’s not an easy process, editing an existing work, but it’s a crucial step to preserving the art, to keep audiences coming back year after year. “If you’re lucky enough for something to be successful and to be brought back,” he admits, “that’s when your work starts.” When creating a new work, the possibilities are endless, yet both the freedom and familiarity of working with Smuin lends itself to producing a distinct and unique ballet. “It’s the storyline, the dancers, the creative environment—all of that is taken into consideration,” Caniparoli says. We eagerly welcome him back for this highly anticipated second collaboration with Smuin.