PNB’s <em>Coppélia</em> Has Balanchine’s Fingerprints All Over It
It’s a PNB premiere, this Coppélia (through June 13), the latest in a line of Coppélia premieres that stretches back to 1870. (Balanchine’s interpretation of Petipa’s version had its premiere in 1974.) Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet co-produced this one, with luxurious, fairytale scenery and costume design by Roberta Guidi di Bagno.
There’s a little teapot of a house, a huge, leafy canopy that stretches the width of the stage, and a book-and-mechanical-doll-strewn workshop where Dr. Coppelius (Peter Boal) is working on his dream of a lifelike young woman. Totally not creepy, I’m sure. Be prepared for everyone to clap each time the curtain goes up. The set and costumes are of a piece with the sweetly light-hearted score from Léo Delibes (conducted with monochromatic bounce by Nathan Fifield on opening night).
In theory, Coppélia is a story ballet, though I have a suspicion that if you plotted it out minute by minute, you’d find that dance advancing the narrative made up about forty percent of the total. The rest is Balanchine amusing himself–and the audience–with dancing around this parable.
The little tale is bound to delight young and old (I have proof of this because a granddaughter and her grandparents were sitting behind me): Franz (Jonathan Porretta) and Swanilda (Kaori Nakamura) are the young lovers whose future is only briefly threatened by Franz’s attraction to a mechanical doll. Then there’s a big wedding, at which Franz jumps for joy.
On the dance side, Balanchine gives you a Carpathian-Polish mazurka and Hungarian czardas in the first act (which should bring to mind that quote about Ginger Rogers backwards and high heels), and the third has Mara Vinson and the “Waltz of the Golden Hours,” along with solos for Dawn (Carrie Imler), Prayer (Carla Körbes), and Spinner (Chalnessa Eames)–not including the ensemble piece for Discord and War, led by Arianna Lallone and Batkhurel Bold, with terrifically unconvincing armor and spears.
PNB’s can’t-miss team of Porretta and Nakamura are wonderful to watch; Nakamura tackles the intricate steps with a huge smile–or she elevates and seems to float lightly down in her tutu. It feels as if she’s en pointe the whole third act, which is where Porretta’s series of grand leaps come, as well. Big finish! (I’m told that Nakamura will miss this Saturday’s matinée due to a slight injury. You can see the planned cast rotation here.)
While there’s nothing to complain about in the execution, it’s not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff, neither dramatically nor technically. (Though if little Hungarian ankle socks are your thing, be seated.) There’s no real attempt to engage at depth with the story, it’s just a clever-girl-nets-guy set-up, and I can’t help but think that’s a kind of artistic laziness.
As I look at Coppélia, I see a young woman, engaged to be married, who becomes concerned that her fiancé doesn’t see her for who she really is, but is instead entranced by her public self, a doll-like accumulation of socially acceptably gestures. (In this reading, Dr. Coppelius is a father figure, the man who has taught Coppélia how to behave but not how to live.) Franz may or may not be a douche, but how to be sure?
When Swanilda disguises herself as Coppélia, who then “comes to life,” there’s a double irony: it’s in thwarting Dr. Coppelius’s plans that he learns about the difference between girls and dolls, and it’s in infusing Coppélia with her being that Swanilda learns how to be “seen” by Franz. Everyone has an inner authentic self, but we have to display it for other people to recognize it. That’s what I would have liked to see happening.
But instead, I got Balanchine’s dolls. They are pretty, perform a planned choreography, and seem amazingly lifelike. The meaning, I think, is hidden in those folk dances that recall home, in the wishes for golden hours of marriage (and warning of wars between the sexes). That’s when the ballet ceases to be puppetry, and bleeds a little.