Imagine Cinderella's Prince as a 1950s-style rebel without a cause.
That's what Val Caniparoli did. His Prince is "a James Dean type," says the choreographer, who re-imagined the fairy tale for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. "He gets kicked out of Arthur Murray."
And the ball that Cinderella so longs to go to? "It's a sock hop at the Twilight Ballroom."
Canada's oldest and best-known ballet troupe alights in Tucson this Saturday to dance the beloved tale of the forlorn Cinderella. But the Winnipeg's version, renamed A Cinderella Story, is light years away from the classic story ballet. It's set in 1950s America, and the music is by Richard Rodgers, the legendary Broadway composer.
Most companies dance the evening-length work to Prokofiev's classical 1944 score, and place the story in the France of the Ancien Régime, in deference to its French origins as a tale by Perrault. Ballet Tucson, for one, offered up such a Cinderella on the same Centennial Hall stage less than two years ago.
A Cinderella Story is everything those traditional ballets are not, from the music to the choreography to the costumes.
"The great thing is we've been allowed to arrange the Rodgers music in a bluesy, jazzy fashion," Caniparoli says. Hammerstein's words have been dropped, and the instrumental music is played live by 10 musicians. The 23 dancers go through moves from ballroom to showbiz, from jazz to African.
"You'll see dance forms inspired by other dance forms," he says. But the dancers are so highly trained in ballet that the audience is aware that "classical dancers are doing this. You have fun. The women are in pointe shoes, but they're also in high jazz shoes."
And the whole production has a retro-'50s look. Costume designer Sandra Woodall dressed the women in full skirts and "Givenchy high fashion. They're gorgeous," he says. "It's been so much fun to work with the fascinating '50s. We've been collecting commercials, toys of the time, polo sticks and hula hoops."
The impetus for the Winnipeg's radical version came from its artistic director, André Lewis. In 2002, Lewis commissioned Caniparoli to create a new Cinderella for the company. But Lewis knew exactly what he did not want.
"He wanted a new Cinderella, and not Prokofiev," says Caniparoli, who works as an independent choreographer. "There were a lot of Cinderellas at that time. I had to search for music, but what and where?"
Other choreographers had recast the story in different settings. Rudolf Nureyev's 1986 version for the Paris Opera Ballet transported the tale to Hollywood. In 1997, Matthew Bourne, best-known for his all-male Swan Lake, placed his dancers in the London blitz of World War II. But they had stuck with the beloved Prokofiev score.
As luck would have it, 2002 was the centenary of Richard Rodgers' birth. The showbiz world was honoring the composer, who collaborated with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein on some of Broadway's most-loved musicals, from Carousel to South Pacific to The Sound of Music.
"Everyone was celebrating that," Caniparoli says. Even he created a tribute dance, "No Other Love," and set it to Rodgers' music. The San Francisco Ballet performed it, and Rodgers' two daughters "saw it and loved it."
The dramaturge Caniparoli was working with on Cinderella pushed him to continue down the Rodgers path.
"He kept telling me, 'Why don't you just go with Richard Rodgers?' The light bulb went on."
A Rodgers Cinderella was already in place. Rodgers and Hammerstein had created a made-for-television version in 1957, with the lead played by Julie Andrews. Caniparoli was a child at the time, and he remembers all the hoopla.
"It was a huge event," Caniparoli says. "Commercials were made specifically for the telecast"—the way ads are targeted to the Super Bowl today. "One was about Bob and Nancy going on a date. We used that—Bob and Nancy—not the Prince and Cinderella."
Still, his Rodgers-inspired Cinderella retains the crucial storyline.
"We're putting it in a different time period, but all the components are there: the father, stepmother, stepsisters," he says. "We turned it around a bit."
Caniparoli's career has been as eclectic as his Cinderella. He didn't come to dance until his early 20s.
"I loved Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire," he says. "It doesn't dawn on you that that's a career."
He'd studied music and theater all his life, and as a young man, he happened to take a master dance class. The instructor, impressed with his raw talent, encouraged him to study ballet.
"I auditioned at San Francisco Ballet School and pretended I was 16. I got a scholarship. Within a year and a half, I was in the company."
Thirty-six years later, he still is. He still dances, mostly character roles—he was Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker this season—but he has had a separate career as an independent choreographer for years. He got connected with the Winnipeg Ballet when he was brought in to work with prima ballerina Evelyn Hart, now retired.
Founded in 1939, "The company is cherished in Winnipeg," he says. "They love them. When the dancers are walking down the street, people get excited and wave."
Caniparoli and the Winnipeg debuted A Cinderella Story to good reviews in 2004. His clients and his audiences appreciate his off-center aesthetic, which comes, he says, from the fact that he didn't grow up in a ballet studio listening to classical music. Instead, he studied music of all kinds, and that translates into varied choreography.
"I use so many different forms of music," he says. "My dances can have ice-skating moves, modern, jazz. I dabble in African. The influences are from all over. Nothing is strictly ballet," including his Cinderella, "but everything has a strong classical structure."
A Canadian reviewer, writing in the Victoria Review, lauded the production's "brilliant dancing technique," and justly noted its showbiz origins, saying it conjured up "the elegance and excitement of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."