In George Balanchine’s Coppélia, the Pacific Northwest Ballet dips into ballet’s history for one of the most delightful comedic ballets ever created.
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle – April 16, 2016.
The first production of Coppélia premiered at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1870, choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon to an expressive and animated score by Léo Delibes. In 1884, French choreographer Marius Petipa (famous for his creations of The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker – still the best-known classical ballets to date) revised it for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. Then, George Balanchine, with prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova – who herself had danced the title role of Swanilda – premiered their version at the New York City Ballet in 1974. To the Petipa version, Balanchine and Danilova added Balanchine’s signatures – swift and articulate footwork, intricately patterned phrases for the ensemble, and an additional cast of 24 ballet students in the roles of the ‘Hours’ in the third act. Through this lineage, Balanchine’s Coppélia bears characteristics of French, Russian and American ballet, and to this, PNB adds its own qualities that charm and delight.
The curtain rises to a sumptuously decorative set by Roberta Guidi di Bagno. A blanket of ferns hangs from above the stage and frames the ornate village scene below, whose buildings are painted with blue designs like the finest porcelain. Inhabiting such a setting are the most beautifully dressed villagers – costumes also designed by di Bagno. The men wore long brocade vests in tones of pistachio and lavender, Fez hats, harem pants and calf-height boots, and the women in multi-layered skirts with gold-patterned hem and detailed bodice tops in the same colour tones. Weaving between one another in springy steps, they performed a Hungarian czardas dance that brought the Eastern European village to life. The effervescent Leta Biasucci, in the role of Swanilda, emerges in a layered raspberry pink tulle skirt to her knees with a peasant top above a laced waist corset, and her beau Franz was danced by a playful Benjamin Griffiths in light green tights and a brown leather vest.
Biasucci was exceptional. Her cheerful energy accented the swift footwork; even what must’ve been an tiring phrase of relevés was articulated with great clarity and confidence. Never rushed, she found moments to suspend her battements and the PNB Orchestra, conducted by Allan Dameron, lingered with her. Her matchless theatricality was not only in bright smiles but also a keen playfulness in her character. When her blade of wheat didn’t ‘whisper’, meaning her beau’s love may not be true, her sullen expression elicited sympathy.
Griffiths and Ryan Cardea, as the mysterious doll maker Dr. Coppelius, also show wonderful theatricality in the hilarious second act, in which Franz and Dr. Coppelius are fooled by Swanilda who impersonates Dr. Coppelius’ life-like doll, Coppélia. Cardea captures a character of old age without exaggeration, and a twinkle-in-eye adoration for Biasucci as she danced for him, as Coppélia. di Bagno’s set charms again with a backdrop of mannequins and sloping shelves in dusty colour tones, evoking the workshop of a passionate genius who neglects its upkeep.
For the third act, Balanchine and Danilova fill the allegorical divertissement – the Festival of Bells – that celebrates village life, with joyful dance numbers and virtuosic variations, cumulating with Swanilda and Franz’s wedding. Here, Griffiths shows off lofty cabriole jumps and jump turns. Margaret Mullin, who, in the first act was superbly comical as the girl reluctantly coerced by her girlfriends when they snuck into Dr. Coppelius’ workshop, was captivating in her role as Dawn. Her subtle glances and turns of the head were as expressive as her movements. In keeping with the custom of 19th century ballets, the dancers presented for applause after each number.
PNB’s Coppélia revives nostalgia and assures that through its present talents, we have access to ballet’s past.