by Milton W. Hamlin -
SGN A&E Writer
In this crazy, uncertain age, it's nice to know that there is sometimes truth in advertising. Pacific Northwest Ballet notes in its appealing ad campaign that George Balanchine's Coppélia is 'The Happiest Ballet on Earth!' The highly regarded company summarizes the story thus: 'A silly tale of a doll, her maker, and a pair of young sweethearts.' It could easily add: 'The perfect 'first' ballet for the whole family.'
Coppélia premiered in 1870 in France at the Paris Opera Ballet. In 1884, the famous St. Petersburg production at Russia's Imperial Ballet used choreography by Marius Petipa, based on the Paris original. His famous work was revised in 1894 and adapted by many other companies over the years.
As with all famous Russian ballets, the major dances for the principals were handed down from one dancer to another for generations. That precedent continues today: Balanchine's 1974 version for the New York City Ballet retained many of these major moments with new input for minor roles and the corps de ballet. An earlier PNB version of Coppélia was based on the Petipa work, but the world-acclaimed Balanchine version premiered at PNB in June of 2010. It makes a most welcome return with this revival.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect night of classical ballet. Coppélia manages to treat formal, classical ballet with the highest respect while filling the stage with imaginative costumes and scenery, and to keep a straight face while tongue-in-cheek shenanigans delight the crowd. Creativity and skill rule the evening.
Just one example: late in Act Two there is a famous, challenging 'Waltz of the Golden Hours' as part of the 'Dedication of the Bells' wedding sequence. The dance was designed for 24 women who appear only in this scene. Since it is expensive to hire 24 dancers for just a few moments onstage, many companies 'cheat' by using 12 dancers, each of whom appears twice - e.g., 'Miss 1 A.M.' dances again as 'Miss 1 P.M.'
Not at PNB. In a brilliant, witty decision, PNB uses 24 students from its highly regarded ballet school. These 'baby ballerinas' dance with polish beyond their years, delight the audience members with their charm (and almost synchronized work), and, not incidentally, sell zillions of tickets to proud parents, grandparents, other relatives, and friends of same. What a great solution. And what fun.
Coppélia tells the tale of the mysterious Dr. Coppelius, who creates mechanical figures - a Chinese doll, a juggler doll, an astrologer doll, an acrobat doll, and, most importantly, a beautiful doll - the title character - who is so lifelike that mortal men fall in love with her. All of Dr. Coppelius' creations are kept under lock and key in his creepy old house. Coppélia, though, is so beautiful that our hero, the handsome Franz, sees her 'reading' on her balcony and immediately falls in love with her. His betrothed, Swanilda, is not amused that Franz seems infatuated by the new girl in town. She finds a key to the doctor's laboratory home and slips in, en pointe, with eight of her girlfriends, also on their toes. (Well, it is a ballet.) When she discovers that her 'rival' is only a windup doll, Swanilda is delighted and exposes the fraud to Franz. And they dance. In Act Three, they get married. They dance, the village lads dance, the village lasses dance, the lads and lasses dance, and the 24 'Hours' dance. And what incredible dancing it is.
On opening night last week, two of PNB's most exciting principals headed this glorious revival - Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta. Both were perfectly matched and perfectly cast. Both are incredible dancers, fulfilling every technical demand the work made on them, seemingly effortlessly. 'Soaring' is the right word for both performances. As is traditional, PNB rotates all major roles, often casting three or four dancers in each one. Because of the depth of PNB's talent roster, audiences can be assured of a top performance every time.
As usual, Nakamura and Porretta were both extraordinary dancers and incredible actors. Porretta's silly Jerry Lewis-style rubber-faced mugging - perfectly in character for Franz - delighted the crowd in every appearance. Nakamura's bright smile, faux-petulant stance in her jealous mode, and athletic skills in her high jumps matched Porretta's polished work. They are a joy to watch, together or apart. Jeffrey Stanton, returning to PNB after his recent retirement from dance character roles, was an appealing Dr. Coppelius. The four mechanical dolls in Act Two were all tops, especially Christian Poppe as the Acrobat Doll (dressed in a colorful harlequin costume) and Andy Garcia as the Chinese Doll.
Coppélia continues this weekend, with four more performances through the Sunday matinee. It's a perfect choice for a family outing, an unquestioned perfect 'first ballet' for new audiences of any age, and a thoroughly delightful experience for any ballet fan. Be prepared to smile a lot and laugh out loud many times. Be prepared to be delighted. Ticket information is available at (206) 441-2424 or www.pnb.org. Highest recommendation.
Coppélia is just one of several important PNB events in June. Sunday night is the Season Encore Performance, with excerpts from this season's various highlights. The annual School Performance, showcasing students of the Pacific Northwest Ballet School (including the 24 dancers who appear in 'Waltz of the Golden Hours'), and the Seattle Youth Symphony is scheduled for next Sunday, June 16, at 1:30 p.m. Next Step follows later the same day with a 7 p.m. performance. Next Step features new works choreographed by PNB company dancers for the PNB School's Professional Division students. What a day that will be.
Four major events from PNB in June. What a month. What a treat. What a company. SGN can't wait.
And, don't forget to check out PNB's 2012-13 season, which includes Swan Lake, Cinderella, Romeo et Juliette, the annual Nutcracker, and three mixed-repertoire programs.
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