A new ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ ballet gets its North American debut in Kansas City
Kansas City audiences will be the first on the continent to see Robert Louis Stevenson's Gothic novella in ballet form. Celebrated choreographer Val Caniparoli consulted with dancers in the area to help shape the work.
During a recent rehearsal at the Kansas City Ballet, choreographer Val Caniparoli oversaw a fierce battle between two half-naked dancers. From the edge of a practice space at the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, he shaped a struggle between good and evil as it played out within a single character.
“I've always wanted to create a duet between two men, and their duet is between their two personalities,” Caniparoli said. “It's not two different people — you're actually dancing with yourself.”
Over the last five decades, Caniparoli has gained international acclaim. His rendition of "Jekyll and Hyde," which includes the duet, opened at the Finnish National Ballet in 2020. Now, Caniparoli is preparing for its North American premiere at the Kansas City Ballet.
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was written by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, and first published in 1886. In it, respected scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll wants to separate his good and evil sides. To do so, he runs experiments on his patients and himself, transforming into Mr. Hyde, his evil alter ego.
Caniparoli grew up obsessed with the monsters in black-and-white horror films. But the monsters in real life are far more terrifying, he said.
“I think the biggest monsters in modern day are the ones you don't expect,” Caniparoli said. “Look at the news: The ones that commit the most heinous crimes are those that you don't expect. They don't look like the monsters you see on film.”
Four years ago, dancers in Kansas City helped shape Caniparoli’s work, and had a hand in his creative process.
Devon Carney, artistic director of the Ballet, said the workshop was a chance for dancers to discover a more artistic side of their expression.
"Val is an internationally renowned choreographer, sought after around the globe for his choreographic works," he said. "To be a part of this particular project is very meaningful to every dancer in this company."
“It's great that it's coming here first, because it's where it began,” Caniparoli said.
'The music and the choreography meld together'
Gavin Abercrombie plays young Dr. Jekyll — a complicated role, he said.
"He's a great character to try to delve into," Abercrombie said. "He does twisted things, and he seems to have a superiority complex, thinking he can do these things and it doesn't matter what gets in the way."
Cameron Thomas plays Mr. Hyde.
"I think there are a lot of versions that portray Hyde as a hunched-over, like physically disfigured, totally different being than Dr. Jekyll, whereas this could not be farther from that,” he said.
And though Hyde may behave like a monster, "you're not watching a giant, villain creature,” Thomas said. “You're watching a man do evil, horrible things. And I think he's drawing a lot of parallels to the modern idea of the predator as a very charismatic, very dangerous person.”
"It's dark," he said.
That's why Caniparoli spent extra time with Thomas in rehearsal, getting every gesture just right. Each movement is an important part of capturing Hyde’s character.
“There is a psychopathy in him, but there is also a delight in him that maybe makes him a little bit unique," Thomas said. "He enjoys the killing, he enjoys being the foil to Dr. Jekyll and ... it's been a blast to explore it."
The psychological drama of “Jekyll and Hyde” is underpinned by the music of five Polish composers, woven together by Kansas City Ballet’s Music Director Ramona Pansegrau.
“Val is an incredibly musical choreographer,” Pansegrau said. "He and I have worked on ballets together for a couple of decades now, but that long term collaboration, I think it really shows with the way the music and the choreography meld together.”
Carney, the Ballet's artistic director, said it's rare that a music director has an opportunity to arrange their own score.
"This is a big deal, to actually collaborate with the choreographer to such a degree that you are actually creating the mood of all the scenes of an entire production," Carney said. "Ramona has stitched together these Polish composers in such a spectacular way — to the point that, if you didn't know any better, you would say this is all composed by one composer."
Act Two opens with a ballroom scene and a waltz.
“We were looking for something sort of dark and that kept moving, and that was truly exciting to listen to,” Pansegrau said.
Finding the right composers to set the mood was a challenge, and Pansegrau needed to have music in her back pocket to fill unexpected gaps.
“You can figure out everything you need to know except that there are still variables in putting on a live ballet,” Pansegrau said. “Things like scene changes — how long does it take to change the set? Costume changes — how long does it take for the corps de ballet to get out of one costume and into another for the next scene? And you don't know until you actually do that.”
The new production has been gaining attention, and Carney said representatives from ballet companies around the country plan to attend the performance.
“It's going to be really fun to be able to show off our company," he said. “I’m thrilled that we have that chance to be the first ones to present this in North America.”
Kansas City Ballet's “Jekyll and Hyde” makes its North American premiere at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 13, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri 64108. More information is at KCBallet.org.