James Ady visits Ballet History to discuss Val Caniparoli's "Lambarena"

13 February 2018 Published in News and Announcements
James Ady visits Ballet History to discuss Val Caniparoli's "Lambarena" photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev

Last week, former principal dancer James Ady visited the Ballet History class to discuss performances of a ballet by Val Caniparoli called Lambarena. Ady performed with Pennsylvania Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and was known for his abilities to inhabit a wide range of choreographers’ styles: from Caniparoli to Balanchine to Trey McIntyre to Matthew Neenan.

In fact, Caniparoli cast Ady as the lead dancer in Lambarena in 2007. Ady’s memories of learning the ballet, and his recollections of the choreography itself, enriched the class’s conversations about dance history and creative processes. In particular, students discussed theories of scholar bell hooks, who has written extensively on cultural appropriation and “othering.” When Ady visited, we had a unique opportunity to discuss differences between cultural appreciation and appropriation.

When Caniparoli created Lambarena in 1994 for San Francisco Ballet, the creation was sponsored, at that time, by the Choo-San Goh Awards for Choreography. Caniparoli was inspired by the score , made by Sony Classical Music and a fusion of Bach with African compositions. Caniparoli told a dance critic at the time, "I heard it and knew right away; there was not even a question. I was searching for something ethnic-based -- though I didn't think I'd go this far." In classes we discussed how “ethnic” is erroneously used to mean art forms created by people of color. Critics responded to the performance in drastically different ways: Gia Kourlas called the blend of “Bach with traditional African songs, and the choreographic result, …as unsightly a mix as you might expect.” Others describe the piece favorably, “Lamberana has delighted audiences since it was introduced a decade ago.”

Students in Ballet History discussed the challenges faced by choreographers who draw inspiration from cultures other than their own, which has happened throughout ballet history, and continues in certain productions of The Nutcracker. One student asked, “What do we need to do to celebrate cultures and not cross the line into appropriation?”

James Ady spoke from personal experience when he described the experts who Caniparoli brought with him: Naomi Gedo Johnson-Washington and Zakariya Sao Diouf, members of San Francisco's Diamano Coura company. They taught African dance techniques to Pennsylvania Ballet company members.

Ady recalled the movement being far more grounded and polyrhythmic than a classical ballet class, and Ady’s ability to embrace these differences and bring a sense of curiosity to the auditions made him stand out. In many ways, Ady’s teaching has been distinguished by the same attributes. As part of the faculty in the Ballet Program at the U for several years, Ady inspired students with his encouragement of their physical, mental, and emotional intelligences. Students responded enthusiastically to his methods, excited by his ability to recognize their unique talents and relieved to be in the presence of a ballet teacher who’s keenly aware of how ballet today includes both classical and contemporary approaches.

In many ways Ady’s pedagogy is a reflection of his distinguished career: he is far more interested in a dancer who can move intelligently than someone who can execute tricks or high extensions. Asked what advice Ady would give to current and future students at the U he said, “In an attempt to limit regrets and enjoy a healthy, lifelong relationship with dance—laugh often, keep sweating, don’t be afraid to solicit advice, disregard what doesn’t serve your best interests, and take chances; both in life and in your career!”

Since leaving the U last December, Ady has been deeply missed. His generosity, awareness, and knowledge left indelible impressions on both colleagues and students. His visit to the Ballet History class on February 5 reminded everyone of the keen insights Ady brought to many conversations, especially those that combined artistic, political, and cultural considerations.