On May 27, 2023 The Los Angeles Ballet under the new and exciting leadership of Melissa Barak, Artistic Director and Brandon Lussier, Executive Director premiered the much anticipated Lady of the Camellias at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.

This exquisite work and the lyrical music of Frédéric Chopin was choreographed by the adroit Val Caniparoli from The San Francisco Ballet (SFB). SFB has been his artistic home for more than 50 years, where he worked under Lew Christensen and Michael Smuin in the 1980’s and became resident choreographer and Rehearsal Director under Helgi Tomasson. He has choreographed over 100 productions for ballet, opera, and theater with 50 plus companies globally. Southern California and L.A. Ballet is a new vista for this eclectic artist.

Val Caniparoli - Photo by Eric Tomassen

Val Caniparoli – Photo by Eric Tomassen

His fateful work on Lady of the Camellias is dedicated to Norbert Vesak who was to develop the original concept and choreography with his partner, Set and Costume designer, Robert Glay de la Rose. Because of Vesak’s untimely death from a brain aneurism, he never completed the project. To build Lady of the Camellias, Caniparoli was chosen by De La Rose, and after much consideration, he agreed to work and dedicate this piece to his friend and mentor.

Caniparoli’s exquisite understanding of music combined with his choreographic and dramatic mastery guides the audience through this tragic narrative. His inventive use of silence and sounds of birds-in-song woven into the lyricism of the Chopin pieces, in particular the love theme, (Andante Spianato et grande Polonaise brilliante, op. 22 I), haunts the star-crossed lovers, Marguarite and Armand. His wise placement of Chopin’s spirited Polonaises, Ballades, Waltzes and art songs enhances the timing and emotion of the piece fully to the very end.

Los Angeles Ballet - Ensemble, Act 3 of Val Caniparoli's Lady of the Camillias - Photo by Cheryl Mann

Los Angeles Ballet – Ensemble, Act 3 of Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camillias – Photo by Cheryl Mann

The story is based on Alexandre Dumas fils (son of Alexandre Dumas author of Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Christo) and his brief love affair with a young courtesan, Marie Duplessis. La Dame aux Camélias (published in 1848) set in mid-19th-century France is semi-autobiographical written at just 23 years old.  It unfolds the tragic love story of fictional characters Marguerite Gautier, a demimonde (courtesan) suffering from consumption (Tuberculosis) and Armand Duval, a young bourgeoisie.

Casting for the Lady of Camellias was exceptional. The role seemed made for Petra Conti’s delicacy and long shimmering lines as Marguerite. Her sensitive portrayal was beautifully in-touch with the essence and commitment to the vulnerability of the character.  Based on the Dumas’ real-life lover, Conti’s mature understanding of life, love and loss, reaches out to break the hearts of the onlookers. And when coupled with Zachary Catazaro’s virile young sensuality and technique, it creates a powerhouse of feelings combined with flawless breathtaking performances, as both dancers and actors. Tate Lee, playing the Baron de Varville, Marguerite’s benefactor/lover attempts righteously to combat the intrusion of Armand to no avail.

Los Angeles Ballet - Petra Conti with Ensemble, Act 1 of Val Caniparoli's Lady of the Camillias - Photo by Cheryl Mann

Los Angeles Ballet – Petra Conti with Ensemble, Act 1 of Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camillias – Photo by Cheryl Mann

Duval Sr., Armand’s father, played by the powerful presence of 6’6” Fabrice Calmels’ fills the stage when he and Catazaro physically wrestle with the decision of love versus young Armand’s reputation and future. The insightful and emotional pas de deux embracing and twisting bodies, displays the agony of the father carrying the son to the fateful conclusion.

The rich Lighting Design by Trad Burns and Executed by Andrew McDaniels enhances and clearly clarifies the movement and emotion of the dancer/actors. The elegant Scenic Designs by David Gano, Act II by Robert Glay de la Rose was sparse and dramatic with opulent chandeliers and soaring hints of mansion walls and doors.

Jasmine Perry showed her mettle and musicality as Olympe, St. Gaudins’ mistress. Her partner Santiago Paniagua as St. Gaudins, and his fiery presence and technical skill entranced the audience in his short solo piece. However, when paired, appeared to struggle at times in the Pas de deux portions of their times together.

Los Angeles Ballet - Petra Conti and Zachary Catazaro in Act 2 of Val Caniparoli's Lady of the Camillias - Photo by Cheryl Mann

Los Angeles Ballet – Petra Conti and Zachary Catazaro in Act 2 of Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camillias – Photo by Cheryl Mann

L.A. ballet’s Corps was the strongest and most technically excellent seen in recent years. In particular the strong male dancers with their clean double tours and pirouettes. Estelle Shaw’s Prudence added mirth and energetic relief. While the high spirited Gustave and Nichette, danced by Cuban-born Cesar Ramirez Castellano and the vivacious Kate Inoue lit the stage with much elan. Ending the ballet is Marguerite’s remembrance of her beloved in a poignant dream sequence by Brigitte Edwards and Jacob Ray.

The exquisite staging most definitely needs a mention, so expertly done Maiqui Manosa, Charla Metzker Whiteley, and Ogulcan Borova; showing the excellent cast of dancers as Revellers, Guests and Friends; Jasmine Perry, McKenzie Byrne, Cassidy Cocke, Brigitte Edwards, Julianne Kinasiewicz, Cleo Taneja, Shintaro Akana, LillyFife, Shelby Whallon, Hannah Keene, Ryo Araki, Dallas Finley, Jacob Soltero, Jonas Tutaj, Madeline McMillin, Brittany Rand, Laura Chachich, Andrew Fleischner, Mikiya Kakehashi, Lilly Leach, Anna Jacobs, Santiago Paniagua, Cesar Ramirez Castellano, and Poppy Coleman.

This surprisingly eloquent group of artists embellished this moving story all the way to its emotional end, proving that L.A. Ballet most certainly can be a force to be reckoned with… and contributed to. If work like this continues, it allows Los Angeles the opportunity to build a world class ballet company. Something ballet lovers have been waiting for many years. Let’s make the present a telling future!

For more information about Los Angeles Ballet, please visit their website.

For more information about the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, please visit their website.

Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camellias – Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet.