Imagine it’s 1998. Cincinnati Ballet is performing Val Caniparoli’s choreography for a full-length story ballet — the exquisite 1995 Lady of the Camellias. It’s the first time artistic director (now CEO) Victoria Morgan has chosen a ballet for her company from the up-and-coming choreographer. The story is from Alexandre Dumas’ Camille, the famous 1848 novel about a tragically doomed courtesan of the Paris demimonde, where high and not-so-high society mix in a heady whirl of champagne, fancy balls and fashionable romantic liaisons.
Cut to 2015. This weekend, the Ballet again presents Lady of the Camellias. It’s the 20th anniversary of the production’s premiere. Choreographer Caniparoli is now very highly regarded; perhaps the busiest choreographer in the United States, with more than 100 works to his credit. Among them: Cincinnati Ballet’s popular Frisch’s Presents The Nutcracker, which ran from 2001-2011, as well as the brilliant shorter works “Caprice” and “Vivace.”
And, it turns out that Lady of the Camellias, Caniparoli’s first full-length story ballet 20 years ago, has become nothing less than a modern masterpiece. “It’s one of the great dramatic ballets, like Romeo and Juliet,” Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen has said.
The lead characters are Marguerite Gautier, a celebrated courtesan, or kept woman, and her one true love, Armand Duval, whom she heroically and tragically abandons when she finds out she has consumption. Today it’s called tuberculosis and is treatable, but the wasting-lung disease was almost always fatal then.
The ballet’s drama is gloriously pushed along with a romantic score by Frédéric Chopin. Music director Carmon DeLeone conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a pianist and two vocalists.
“Though the CSO plays for the first time here, this ballet is still a tour-de-force for piano,” DeLeone says. “We, again, are fortunate to have it performed for us by our world-class piano soloist Michael Chertock.”
Chertock says it’s no less daunting to play today. “Chopin wrote these pieces when his fingers were as fast as bullets and his hands as flexible as rubber,” he says.
Caniparoli was in Cincinnati in late September to watch the ballet’s New Works program and some company classes. He said there are 10 principal characters that need to be strong to tell the story.
“I do have dancers I have used before in Cincinnati, and I love them,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean they are right for Lady. These roles are so selective. There are traits I want to see. Hard as the dancing is, it’s not super virtuosic. It’s more intimate. The pas de deux (dance for two) are difficult; couples have to be matched up correctly. And a dancer has to be really good at telling a story.”
Caniparoli explained the milieu in which the ballet takes place. Though Marguerite is probably only 23, she is already getting old in her world. “Plus, it’s not what we think of as a courtesan now. These women were high up in society,” he said. “They lived well because they were held in high esteem by those who kept them.”
At the center of Lady of the Camellias is a pas de deux that expresses the rapturous, love-at-first-sight meeting of Marguerite and Armand, set to a movement from Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” in E minor.
Two weeks ago, Cincinnati Ballet soloists Maizyalet Velázquez and partner James Gilmer, who have learned the roles of Marguerite and Armand, offered their thoughts after a rehearsal with Charla Metzker, who is staging Lady in Cincinnati. The pair explained the energy it takes to perform the central “pas” and a number of intricate steps and lifts — the ballerina is often lifted high overhead, only to descend in a series of rapturous spirals.
“I don’t think I could do this ‘pas’ if it wasn’t for James (Gilmer), who is very strong,” Velazquez says. “There are many times in the lifts where there’s nothing I can do but wait for him to lift me.”
“At the same time,” Gilmer added, “as much as I have to be strong to pick her up over my head, she needs to be strong in her body, as well, to hold the all the positions.”
Cincinnati Ballet will perform LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday. More info: cincinnatiballet.org.