Marie Duplessis has lived more than a thousand lives since her death at the tender age of 23. The courtesan was quickly fictionalized, then staged; operatic and cinematic homage followed, as well as John Neuemier's 1978 ballet. Val Caniparoli’s own version, choreographed in1994 sees its Kansas City Ballet première this season.

Danielle Bausinger and Dillon Malinski in KCB's <i>The Lady of the Camellias</i> © Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios
Danielle Bausinger and Dillon Malinski in KCB's The Lady of the Camellias
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

The scoring of Chopin’s work for piano and orchestra serves the ballet well in reflecting the boudoir and salon context of much of the action: nobody quite breathes a sense of civilized interiors as he. The setting of his Là Ci Darem la Mano variations to the garden-party flirtations was refreshing; the counterpoint between the increasing social dysfunction of Olympe’s party and the music was enjoyable. Nonetheless, the choice of Chopin also carries limitations – there is nothing rowdy enough to make for a really rambunctious party scene as in Traviata’s brindisi, nothing to convey the loucheness of the demi-monde: does a Chopin soundscape ever sound inebriated (despite the funny pas de champagne)? Passionate and fierce, yes, but raucous, I think not. (Intermittent fluffing of notes in the piano part was unfortunate). I also had some questions the more the first Act went on, about the marriage of a busy choreography to the melodies, surely a particular issue in the boudoir scene – despite being initially drawn to the flow of the pas de deux, I found myself longing for slower, longer movements, invited by music and theme alike: where was the breath?

Costuming and set, courtesy of Robert De La Rose and David Gano, were first rate; Act II’s plein air scene was an aesthetic delight, owing everything to Monet: white costumes detailed with black polka dots and trims, swings and summer games, all sunny playacting under a flowering tree. For the rest, the choices were simple but effective – ornate pilasters and chandeliers to convey plush Parisian interiors, strikingly picked out in silver and grey in Act III, umbrellas and top-hats reminiscent of Caillebotte’s Rainy Day.

The story was danced with growing conviction. Emily Mistretta had the right innocent freshness, and her port de bras in particular had a lovely flowing and open expansiveness. Of course, we don’t consider her in the same earthy fashion as Olympe, (who is obviously not fated to die): powerfully danced by Danielle Basusinger, her ‘dance-off’ with Nichette (Taryn Mejia) was a highlight: with her flair and rhythmic gusto and jealous sidelong glances at her rival, she definitely won. Narratively, I felt the lead men in the first act did not particularly distinguish themselves, especially in the first act, when our eye was more drawn towards the antics of the playboy (Kevin Wilson). The Baron (Liang Fu) is a difficult role to get right, no doubt, but in the pas de deux of Act I, there wasn’t a hint of any kind of power relationship; his was technical partnering, nothing more. His entry cutting across the fête champêtre in Act II was undramatic : his rage should have been evident from the depths of his pliés and the sharpness of his gestures. Armand (Lamin Pereira dos Santos) was ardent enough, and provided fairly smooth partnering.

Emily Mistretta and Lamin Pereira dos Santos in KCB's <i>The Lady of the Camellias</i> © Ali Fleming
Emily Mistretta and Lamin Pereira dos Santos in KCB's The Lady of the Camellias
© Ali Fleming

The all important narrative motif – repeated thrice in Act I – Marguerite’s consumptive cough – was delineated most effectively, when picked out, in the boudoir scene, by a line in the piano. She was such an airhead in the first act – precisely here, at these vulnerable moments, must we see the ostensibly carefree courtesan caught up in introspection, aware of her mortality. Indeed, for all Mistretta’s charm and elegant flow, if I had an issue with her in Act I, it was that lack of communication of an ‘inner life’. Woman does not live on proffered camellias and pearls alone. Her interiority developed when left alone after being warned off Armand by his father. The music has stopped for her – literally and metaphorically – and in that space, she danced a short but meaningful soliloquy. She also later caught the painful movements of a dying woman. As well as taking off the trappings of her trade – the gloves, and jewels, she took off her ballet shoes and danced barefoot, including with the fantasy incarnation of Armand. It’s neat when the metaphor of a dancer taking off her shoes coincides so closely with the process of decline and death. It was almost painful to watch her final attempts to do her hair and make-up in preparing to meet her former lover; she caught up the camellia, but she never put on the shoes again. He arrived only in time for her to die. Vita brevis, ars longa. 

***11