Pacific Northwest Ballet
5 June 2010 (matinee and evening), 11 June 2010, 13 June 2010 (matinee, Act III)
by Helene Kaplan
copyright 2010 by Helene Kaplan
The big news in PNB's new co-production of "Coppelia" with San Francisco Ballet is the re-design, one of the rare design exceptions made by The George Balanchine Trust. Roberta Guidi di Bagno's sets for the village in Acts I and III were fresh and airy and for Dr. Coppelius' workshop in Act II were full of detail, strangeness, and wonder. Act I sets showed Swanhilda's house as a stylized teapot and Dr. Coppelius' as a tall coffee pot, yet neither looked like cartoons. Dr. Coppelius' workshop/study was full of mannequins hanging from the rafters and a large chair made of books. The Act III village square was draped in wisteria and the town bells, the two downstage with the initials "GB" and "LD" for the choreographer and composer, and four bells in the background with the initials of major production donors or, in one case, the late husband of a donor. Alexandra Danilova, with Balanchine, reconstructed the first two acts and was a famous Swanhilda in her own right, and Peter Boal would not let her go unrecognized: the mirror in which Swanhilda, disguised as the doll Coppelia, first gazes at her "human" self, has the initials "AD" on the back.
For Act III Guidi di Bagno created a single basic below-the-knee with tulle skirt design for the soloists, but the choice of fabric set them apart, with "Dawn" in muted gold, "Prayer" in powder blue, and "Spinner" in bright white with black deco wheat designs. (Audrey Hepburn could have worn that dress.) The "Waltz of the Golden Hours" soloist and the corps of girls wore deep pink soft tutus. "War and Discord" were dressed as gladiators of both genders. The costumes were rendered by the Larae Hascall's superb costume department, supplemented with additional workers.
McCaw Hall is an excellent venue for seeing the details, especially in the mime scenes, even from the Second Tier, and the primacy of the relationships, particularly in Act II, was palpable in a way I had never experienced from the Fourth Ring at the New York State Theatre. In the three casts I saw in the complete ballet, the characterizations of Dr. Coppelius were quite different, and all were true to the ballet's spirit. One of the production's surprises was Peter Boal's decision to take on the role. His Dr. Coppelius had an off-beat sense of humor: it was easy to picture him talking to himself -- and answering his own questions -- as he puttered around creating his dolls. Jeffrey Stanton's was more quirky and out-going; as he mimed his fantasy of walking down the street with the animated doll, there was a bit of dandy to him, while Boal was more besotted. Olivier Wevers' Dr. Coppelius was a life-force, brimming with vitality if with a touch of menace and comfortable with the diabolical spells to steal Franz's mojo. Each created a vivid character for whom the "living" Coppelia was a realization of a heartfelt dream, however twisted.
The three Swanhilda/Franz pairings I saw were Lesley Rausch with Jerome Tisserand, Carla Korbes with Seth Orza, and Mara Vinson with James Moore. Swanhilda was created for Patricia McBride, a dancer with preternatural stamina and remarkable technique; here each Swanhilda danced the technical tour de force at the highest level and met every one of the role's challenges in her own way. Swanhilda's "Friends Dance" was a highlight of every performance, as each Swanhildas put her own stamp not only on her variations, but also on her relationship with the splendid corps of friends. It was harder for the men: Franz, created for Helgi Tomasson, requires perfect feet, placement, jumps, turns, all performed with aplomb.
Rausch, a compelling soloist who has been stretched this season in full-length ballets, is as far from being a natural soubrette as Tisserand is from being a natural peasant. They both have a cool, detached quality that is very elegant in classical roles, and here it worked best in the "Peace Pas de Deux". (In the earlier parts of the ballet, each could have used a partner with a bit more fire.) Rausch portrayed Swanhilda as stubborn and independent without ever being hard, reminding me very much of the young Kyra Nichols, and this spirit gave her a charm of her own. Tisserand, surprisingly convincing as the country Franz, did a first-rate performance of the Act I solo, with wonderful hang-time in the turning attitude jumps. He also made a spectacular entrance in the finale, in which he and Rausch both sparkled. His finest dramatic moment was at the end of the first act, when, as he climbed the ladder to Dr. Coppelius' window, he stopped, and breathed in the moment with a look of anticipation that was intoxicating.
Korbes isn't really a soubrette either, but she is a world class flirt. Her Swanhilda was a Queen Bee. Because she dances adagio as if she were born to it, it's easy to forget how strong a technician she is, but then she does a knockout "Rose Adagio" or breezes through the demands of "Coppelia". Her partner, Seth Orza, is a Big Picture dancer: he understands the overall arc of his character and choreography, and if an occasional tree is felled when he over-shoots for bigger, he doesn't lose sight of the forest. Energy, life, and expansiveness were all present in his Franz.
For all of the girlishness of the character, the dancing itself isn't at all cute, although there is plenty of humor in the first two acts. Mara Vinson's Swanhilde was the warmest, the most maternal, and the most grown-up interpretation of the three. It is easy to envision her in "La Fille Mal Gardee", doing Lise's mime about wanting to become a mother, but unlike Lise, she wouldn't have been embarrassed to be seen expressing it. It was fitting dramatically that James Moore's Franz was the most boyish. Moore is not a white tights dancer, and tends to be stiff in his upper body and arms. But he did have wonderful rapport with Vinson and was a sweet partner, and their "Peace Pas de Deux" had warmth and affection.
The corps, which has two big, long dances in Act I, the Mazurka and Czardas, and then did other roles in the third Act, was crisp and energized throughout the run. I cannot praise them enough for making village life as vivid and enchanting in the group dances as the soloists did in their dancing.
In "The Dedication of the Bells", Balanchine had long passages with which to create detailed dance characterizations for his soloists. In the first performance I saw, Carrie Imler danced the deceptively difficult "Dawn" variation with such graciousness, fullness, and presence that she could have been the Lilac Fairy, the mistress of all that followed. Most impressive about Lesley Rausch's performances were how they blossomed over the run, becoming more expansive without losing detail, a characteristic of her dancing all season. In the "Prayer" variation, Sara Ricard Orza's skimming bourees and precise, soft footwork were a highlight. As "Spinner", Chalnessa Eames was quicksilver, and Margaret Mullin had sweep and stature, and without ever looking rushed or forced, used every inch of the stage. In "Waltz of the Golden Hours" Liora Reshef and Mara Vinson each led the 24-girl corps with warmth and a sense that they were part of a sisterhood, not simply a similarly dressed soloist.
The Jesterettes, danced in various groups of four by Amanda Clark, Leanne Duge, Margaret Mullin, Abby Relic, Liora Reshef, Carli Samuelson, and Claire Stallman were uniformly strong in ensemble, yet retained their individuality, like flowers in a garden. "Discord and War" is one of the oddest, goofiest section in ballet, as if "Spartacus" were produced by Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. (I have a soft spot for the section, because it has always been cast with my favorite Hippolytas.) The best performances are done completely straight. Karel Cruz and Carrie Imler did it straight Bolshoi, while Kiyon Gaines and Lindsi Dec did it straight Mariinsky, and it was a delight.
I saw only the third act of the final regular season performance, yet there were two revelations. The first was Benjamin Griffiths' Franz: in the "Peace Pas de Deux", he was a sensitive partner to Rachel Foster, and in his solos, every step, turn, jump, and transition was full, clear, and complete, and his phrasing was musically responsive. His was the first Act III Franz in decades that reminded me of Helgi Tomasson. The second was watching Reshef, Rausch, Ricard Orza, and Mullin in the variations, the four Jesterettes, and Dec and Gaines in "War and Discord": the future is here, and it is in very good hands.
Photo: Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta as Swanilda and Franz in PNB’s Coppélia. Photo © Angela Sterling