The Bolshoi Ballet
John F. Kennedy for the Performing Arts
May 29, 2012
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2012 by Alexandra Tomalonis
The Bolshoi Ballet stopped off in Washington for a week during its summer U.S. tour to bless us with its new revival of “Coppélia,” one of the few comedies in ballet’s classical repertory. That the dancing was extraordinary wasn’t a surprise – it had all the bravura, vibrancy and vivacity one expects from this company, and the character dances (the czardas and mazurka danced by the villagers) were at a level one seldom sees these days. But the sets and costumes were absolutely magnificent, and they, like the choreography, were revivals of the St. Petersburg production of Petipa’s day. This is an exceptionally colorful production, in every sense of that word.
What Dr. Coppélius makes is dolls, though, not machines, and, as true a Romantic as “La Sylphide’s” James, what he wants is his ideal woman. Rather than search for her in the forest, though, he sets out to make one. Coppélia is that ideal, but however lovely she is, however perfect, she is still a doll.
Trouble, and the ballet’s fun, begins when Swanilda and her friends sneak into the toymaker’s shop to meet the girl in the window. When Swanilda realizes she has been tricked, she decides to give Dr. Coppélius his comeuppance by dressing in the doll’s clothes and pretending to be Coppélia. Coppélius, as mad as he is ambitious, tries to bring her to life by stealing (he thinks) the life essences of the feckless Franz, who has also broken into the workshop and whom Dr. Coppélius has drugged, and transferring these through magic to Coppélia. As in any great comedy, there is much going on beneath the surface, and in this one, the many moments of realization and self-realization can be as explosive as the solos.
A fiancé with a wandering eye, a curious heroine not afraid to trespass much less wield a sword, and a mad scientist — there’s no trio like this in classical ballet, and the Bolshoi dancers brought them wonderfully to life. On opening night, Nina Kaptsova was an exceptionally lively Swanilda whose large-scale dancing in the second act brought the opening night audience to attention. In this act, Swanilda has two back-to-back character dances, one Spanish and the other Scottish. They’re usually danced as an attempt by Coppélius to distract Swanilda/Coppélia, who, now alive, is proving to be rather unruly and not quite ideal, but Kaptsova danced them as though they were her idea, grabbing the fan from the Spanish doll and launching into the dance without being prompted (and with a real Spanish fire). Swanilda is sometimes portrayed by a very young dancer, and that can have its charms, but Kaptsova danced her like a ballerina, letting each act reveal layers of her character, growing up as the ballet progressed. By the last act she had left her girl world of butterflies and stampy-footed temper tantrums behind her and was ready for marriage.
As Franz, Artem Ovcharenko matched Kaptsova’s dancing in the last act (he has little dancing in this production before then) but was a bit reticent in the acting scenes. Alexey Loparevich was a very interesting Coppélius. In his scholar’s robes, he seemed more benighted intellectual than evil magician. The production doesn’t serve Coppélius well, however. There’s a small scene in the first act (added? restored?) in which the toymaker is invited into a tavern by a very solicitous, attractive young woman, and staggers out, quite happy, a few minutes later; this confuses, rather than enriches, his character, or, if it was in the original, could lead us to rethink the ballet. Letting Swanilda be completely in charge from the beginning in the second act, too, weakens the story, and Coppélius’s role, a bit, and the wonder that Coppélius feels when his creation takes her first breath is underplayed as well. Those few points, and having Father Time sit on top of what looks like a giant bedside alarm clock during the third act’s divertissement of the bells, were my only quibbles about an otherwise beautiful production.
“Coppélia” nearly disappeared when the Franco-Prussian War broke out a few weeks after its premiere. When it came back after the war, it lost its last act, which the Paris audience had not liked because it had too much dancing. For the past several decades, the ballet has been out of fashion, partly because it’s charming and has a happy ending, and partly because today’s audiences think it has too much mime. The Royal Ballet has kept the work in repertory, Balanchine nearly single handedly saved it when he staged it, with Danilova, in 1974 for the New York City Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet danced a very convincing production through the 1990s.
“Coppélia” may have been in the wings for the last two decades, but she is the Doll Who Will Not Die, and the Bolshoi has saved her once again. Many thanks to Sergei Filin, the former Bolshoi star who now directs the company, and Sergei Vikharev, who has reconstructed the ballet from Petipa’s notes from his revision of Saint Leon's original. Vikharev has restored several 19th century ballets in recent years, and while his productions have been controversial (especially in Russia), he seems to work from a true interest, intrigued by what Petipa actually had set, and curious to see those productions on stage.
The choreography of this version seems quite similar to that danced by the Royal Ballet, also based on Petipa’s notebooks, although some of the Bolshoi choreography, especially the solos for Swanilda and Franz, has been updated to incorporate the tricks popular today. The sets (by Boris Kaminsky) and costumes (by Tatiana Noginova) are based on those of the first Russian production, and they are exceptional. The sets are very detailed painted flats that don’t look old-fashioned at all, and the splendid costumes, especially the women’s tutus in the divertissements, are a history lesson in themselves. 1870 was a transition point, halfway between the Romantic era, which had begun to fizzle in the 1850s, and the high point of St. Petersburg classicism in the 1890s. The tutu is halfway between Romantic and Imperial Ballet as well. In this “Coppélia,” it’s still based on the dress, as though a woman’s dress had been shortened to just below the knee. It’s not a Romantic skirt, and it’s not a classical tutu; it’s somewhere in between. The legs are more visible and hence more free than they had been in Taglioni’s day, but we’ve not yet moved to the age of the arabesque and the preoccupation with line is still in the future.
A final note, and not at all the least important: Delibes’ score is what has, and should, save the ballet as long as ballet is danced. There are productions that slow the score down and make it sound pink and sugary. But here, as conducted by Igor Dronov who was insistent on maintaining a faster tempo, the score is very brisk, with an almost military flavor, and not at all pale – reminiscent of the Royal Danish Ballet’s approach to the music in its great days. It’s a wonderful score, and it was wonderful to hear it again.
All photos are by Damir Yusupov, courtesy of the Bolshoi Ballet, and are, from top:
The third act.
Coppelius (Alexey Loparevich) summoning Coppelia/Swanilda (Nina Kaptsova) to life.
Swanhilda and Franz (Nina Kaptsova and Artem Ovcharenko) in the grand pas de deux.
Swanilda and friends about to invade.