But first, a school. — George Balanchine
Coppélia has entered the house. And about time, considering it’s been around since 1870 and is a perennial favorite throughout the ballet world. Boy was this production worth the wait. With all new scenery and costumes by Italian designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, the complete Leo Delíbes score, and a huge cast (including 24 children), this ballet is an occasion.
When George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova, a famous Swanhilda, choreographed this version of Coppélia for the New York City Ballet in 1974, Danilova staged the “after-Petipa”-based choreography for Act II, plus the grand adagio and Swanhilda’s variation in Act III, working from her memories of dancing with the Ballet Russe. Balanchine kept the basic framework for Act I, creating new staging for the Mazurka and Czardas and adding a new variation for Franz; Act III, with the exception of the adagio and variation mentioned above, is pure Balanchine.
For modern audiences, ballet and opera stories can seem unbelievable. Why would Giselle believe that stranger Albrecht, anyway? And what about Siegfried buying that the chick in the black outfit was really his Swan Queen?
Well, as for the swan switch, fairytales have their own logic — disguises always work in fairytales.
Folk tales, though, have a different problem — that of timing. Although set in the distant past, they usually deal with normal people who would be expected to have more sense. That is, they would if they had access to mass media, modern technology, and Dr. Phil. For Giselle, we have a nice girl, the spoiled and petted darling of an entire village, who would have no reason to expect that anyone would be false with her. Not simple, not an idiot, just a young girl with limited exposure to soap operas and daytime talk shows.
On the folk tale side, Coppélia is the story of an engaged village couple, Swanhilda and Franz, Dr. Coppélius, a magical puppeteer, and his mechanical doll (who everyone believes is a real person). Swanhilda is pretty sure Franz is in love with a new girl in town — the stuck-up one who sits in the window and won’t come and hang out in the village square with the rest of the girls. The new girl is not especially responsive to Franz, either — until her creator Dr. Coppélius winds her up to wave at Franz.
The characters in Coppélia are obviously technology challenged. But there is a reason. Back in long-ago Galicia, no one had heard of animatronics or special effects — if it moved, it lived. Swanhilda wants to confront this young woman in the window so she and her friends sneak into Dr. Coppélius’ house where, through many starts and stops, she makes it clear to Franz that he is chasing after a sophisticated toy. They reconcile and get married in Act III.
On the surface, the ballet seems like a bit of fluff. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with doll, boy loses girl and doll, etc. True, the ballet can be viewed as a simple and somewhat silly story. However, very few works of art survive this long without tapping into a relevant underlying myth or archetype. And Coppélia has a good one.
The issue: Which is better, the natural or the ideal? Does Franz choose an idealized version of womanhood, one who is lovely, quiet, and pleasant, or does he choose the real-world girl — one who is pretty and fun-loving, but has human flaws, including a bit of a temper? In modern terms: Does he stick at home with the girl from the block, or does he bail on her in pursuit (most likely fruitless) of an international supermodel?
This production is, in a word — glorious! The lush backgrounds, from the opening wisteria-covered village green to the detailed interior of Dr. Coppélius’ workshop with its cantilevered bookshelves and spare doll parts, framed some terrific dancing by soloists and corps alike.
As Swanhilda and Franz, Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro at the Sunday afternoon performance, found the comic timing in the mimed sections that successfully propelled the narrative. With the exception of a couple of rocky lifts in the Act I pas de deux, their dancing was clean, crisp, and light throughout the afternoon. In portraying Dr. Coppélius as a lonely, almost buffoonish old man, Ricardo Bustamante allowed the audience to feel a sympathetic connection to a character that easily can be viewed as dark and dangerous.
Over the last several years, SFB dancers have honed their acting abilities, demonstrated by the successful interaction among the three leads in Act II. Zahorian’s torment of Dr. Coppélius (capped by stunning footwork in the Scottish Dance), Domitro’s gradual descent into a drunken stupor, and Bustamente’s vacillation between lecherous pursuit and total confusion brought genuine laughter to the Opera House audience.
But Act III really sold this production. Picture 24 little girls, aged 7 to 10, in gold-sequined pink tutus and tiaras — genius. Just when the audience thinks that they are going to get the usual third act wrap-up, Balanchine returns to his roots and remembrances of the children’s dance in the Mariinsky Sleeping Beauty. Besides looking completely adorable, the young corps performed with grace and professionalism.
What an advertisement for the San Francisco Ballet School! If I were a parent in the audience and wanted to find ballet training for my child, Act III of this Coppélia would pretty much dictate my choice.
San Francisco Ballet
Coppélia (Balanchine & Danilova/Delibes)
Through March 27, 2011
War Memorial Opera House