Rhythm 'N' Bach Led To Birth Of `Lambarena'

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Pacific Northwest Ballet premieres "Lambarena," by Val Caniparoli. 7:30 p.m. tonight through Saturday and April 17; 2 p.m. Saturday. Seattle Center Opera House. ($11-$65; 292-ARTS).

You will love this, the ballet dancer said to her friend and fellow dancer, Val Caniparoli, upon sending him a recording that infuses African rhythms with the melodies of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Sure enough, Caniparoli listened to the recording, sent all the way from Paris, and it hit him right away - "Like, wow!" He was thrilled.

"I loved the cheekiness of putting these two pieces of music together," he said. "A lot of purists don't think it works, but I love the rhythms and everything."

And he knew then what he had to do.

Caniparoli, a Renton native who studied music and theater years before he studied professional ballet, is a dancer and a choreographer, having choreographed mostly for the San Francisco Ballet.

It is the music that always inspires his works, and it was that particular recording called "Lambarena" that moved him to create a 32-minute ballet.

"Lambarena" debuted in 1995, and tonight it is having its premiere with Pacific Northwest Ballet.

PNB's fifth program of the season also features George Balanchine's "Mozartiana," set to music by Tchaikovsky written in tribute to Mozart; and "Voluntaries," described as a dance of life, death, hope and despair, set to Francis Poulenc's Organ Concerto. Glen Tetley created it in tribute to choreographer John Cranko, who died at age 46.

Caniparoli attended Renton High School in the late 1960s, participating in the school's music and theater programs. He had not been exposed to ballet: PNB, the company that would later give him his choreographic break, was not yet in existence.

He didn't even know what dance was about until he enrolled at Washington State University. As a music, theater and English student, he figured he ought to try dance and did so when the First Chamber Dance Co. visited and offered a master class.

The teacher told him he had talent and to pursue a career. Caniparoli listened, quit college and enrolled at SF Ballet on scholarship.

"And it was a good thing I was naive, that I hadn't really thought that this might not happen and that this was ridiculous, at such a late age."

Caniparoli was 20 at the time, but he told the ballet administrators that he was only 16.

Within two years, he was dancing in the company and soon after, he began looking for more. Given his knowledge of theater, music, lighting and dance - maybe he should be choreographing, he thought.

He started working with area schools and when Francia Russell, who co-directs PNB, found out about his interest in choreography, she invited him to participate in a new choreographer's series at PNB.

Caniparoli created "Street Songs" for PNB in 1980, followed by "Gran Partita," and now, "Lambarena." (This summer, he will create a new work for PNB's 25th anniversary season, which opens this fall).

"Ballet is so straight up, so placed. African is down on the ground. It's contractions," Caniparoli says.

"Lambarena," whose music is dedicated to Bach historian Albert Schweitzer, does not tell a story. Rather, it is a celebration of two cultures, Caniparoli explains. It is layering traditional African movements atop classical ballet.

"The biggest thing, the most difficult thing for ballet dancers is moving the hips."

Which is why Caniparoli, earlier in the year, having flown to Seattle to stage the ballet, looked delighted as he watched dancer Paige Parks in rehearsal.

Parks grooved, undulating her torso, rolling her hips and shoulders, all along being watched approvingly by Zakariya Sao Diouf and Naomi Gedo Johnson-Washington.

Diouf and Johnson-Washington, husband-and-wife, are African dancers, teachers and choreographers whom Caniparoli hired when he first created the ballet for San Francisco. They go with Caniparoli whenever the ballet is restaged, showing the dancers how to move and suggesting animal images that might help: a giraffe, a cat, a panther.

"It's the willingness to try different things. To look goofy but to try. That's what's great about this company," Caniparoli says about PNB.

"Lambarena," has also been performed by Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, and it is the ballet, Caniparoli says, for which he has received both his best and his worst reviews.

Some of the negative feedback has targeted the appropriateness of white dancers performing African moves, criticism which Caniparoli never expected and now has learned to disregard.

"To me, that's ridiculous. Classical ballet has borrowed from folk and ethnic dances. African dance is not the only ethnic dance where the hips are moved.

"The best thing is to have the work seen and show it as much as possible."