Reviving Coppelia: New York City Ballet Remounts a Classic

In his 101 Stories of the Great Ballets, co-written with Francis Mason, George Balanchine remarked, “Just as Giselle is ballet’s great tragedy, so Coppelia is its great comedy.” These two ballets, among the oldest still performed, share an idealized pastoralism: both celebrated the virtues of charmed peasant girls from the safe distance of royal Parisian theaters. Yet while Giselle is tender-hearted, her inevitable heartbreak foreshadowed by the number of petals on a delicate blossom, Swanilda, the heroine of Coppelia, is made of sterner stuff. Undeterred by corn husk predictions suggesting her beau does not love her, she takes matters into her own hands, breaking into Dr. Coppelius’s workshop and investigating her stone-faced rival, Coppelia. She finds the stiff girl to be nothing more than a doll. Mischievously, Swanilda remains a trespasser, swaps her clothes for Coppelia’s, then pranks Dr. Coppelius by playing along when he tries to bring her to life. Finally, unlike Giselle, who can never be reunited with the fiancé she forgives from the grave, Swanilda’s reconciliation with her beloved Frantz ends in a lively wedding.

Photo left: Coppelia performed by Megan Fairchild and Robert LaFosse. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik.

It is no surprise that of the two, Balanchine chose to stage Coppelia for New York City Ballet in 1974. Its gutsy heroine and upbeat momentum suited his company far better than gloomy Giselle. Revived this January, NYCB’s jolly Coppelia is a treat for newcomers as well as seasoned balletomanes. Rouben Ter-Arutunian provided candy-colored scenery and costumes, and the incomparable Karinska designed additional third-act costumes. Leo Delibes’s score perfectly propelled the story, imbuing each action with heightened theatricality.

In response to the magnificent music, Balanchine spruced up the dancing but kept the production traditional in spirit. Modest adjustments were made to the first act, including new variations for Frantz to beef up the role. Alexandra Danilova reconstructed the second act exactly, decades after her celebrated performances as Swanilda. The third act was entirely remade by Balanchine. In addition to the central pas de deux, he created divertissements for ballerinas, children, and a “Discord and War” ensemble, displaying the choreographer’s more Modern preoccupations with turned in legs and showgirl kicks.

Megan Fairchild, well-suited for Swanilda, led the cast opening night in this year’s revival. The first act showcased her sparkling footwork and clean lines, and she proved a competent actress as well. Fairchild has a kind of homecoming queen sweetness that makes her lovable, but she can muster the moxie needed for the role. Joaquin DeLuz danced Frantz, and his uncanny ability to hang in the air without obvious effort enhanced his portrayal of the confident young flirt. As for Dr. Coppelius, the character has sinister origins in E. T. A. Hoffman’s original tale, but has been softened considerably for the ballet. Robert LaFosse drew chuckles from the audience as the deluded old man, but his despair upon discovering lifeless Coppelia was genuinely touching. Teresa Reichlen continues to mature into a more subtle artist, here embodying the fresh breath of Dawn. Rebecca Krohn performed the Prayer variation, all creamy bourrées and classical proportions. In the ending climax of the ballet, Balanchine demonstrated his brilliance for manipulating large groups: the stage filled with densely packed canons and whirling skirts, bolstered by Delibes’s accelerating fanfare, ending the great comedy with hearty vigor.

Contributor

Mary Love Hodges

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