Pacific Northwest Ballet
9 June matinee
10 June matinee
By Helene Kaplan
copyright © 2012 Helene Kaplan
Pacific Northwest Ballet ended the 2011-12 season with a revival of its 2010 re-designed production of "Coppelia": Roberta Guidi di Bagno's designs looked as fresh and beautiful as when it debuted, and the score sounded as ravishing. Opening the run as Swanhilde was the company's reigning senior ballerina, Kaori Nakamura, and closing it was one of the company's newest corps members, Leta Biasucci. (It also featured the newest company Principals, Rachel Foster and Lesley Rausch, both of whom debuted in 2010.) Jeffrey Stanton, who retired from the company last season, returned to reprise Dr. Coppelius with Nakamura, and corps member Ezra Thomson made his debut in the role with Biasucci. I saw the second/last performances of these two casts.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura as Swanilda in PNB’s production of the comic ballet Coppélia, choreographed by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust (after Marius Petipa). Photo © Angela Sterling
Kaori Nakamura's mime was crystal clear and read naturally from both the front and back of the house; it blended seamlessly into the dance. Her dancing was technically dazzling, and her phasing intelligent, musical, and full of grace notes; both looked effortless and inevitable. What sets her apart is not only how intelligently and logically she phrases each piece of choreography, but how she created a dramatic arc from section to section and act to act, straight to the climatic Act III pas de deux. Jonathan Porretta was her Franz, carried away more by infectious affection than pure folly. As much as he's known for his virtuosity, the most impressive part of his dancing was the Bournonville-like section of changing weight shifts and directions in the Act I variation, the core of the role made for Danish-trained Helgi Tomasson, and he danced it with aplomb. Because Nakamura and Porretta are not often partners, when they are, it's a joy to see how simpatico they are. After their wedding pas de deux, there was a collective sigh before the ovation.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Jonathan Porretta and Kaori Nakamura as Franz and Swanilda in PNB’s production of the comic ballet Coppélia, choreographed by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust (after Marius Petipa). Photo © Angela Sterling
The character of Dr. Coppelius can be treated superficially, like the wealthy suitors or fixers in other ballet comedies. like "Don Quixote" and "La Fille mal gardee", but Delibes' score tells otherwise: the big, sweeping music first heard in the overture is the music in which he attempts to transform Coppelia from doll to human. It's critical that Dr. Coppelius' heart and mind, however flawed, are revealed to be as big as the music.
Dr. Coppelius was one of Stanton's early major mime roles, and in the the two years since his debut he's refined his approach and made more specific dramatic choices in timing and focus. He, like Nakamura, knew when to hold back to make an event of the choice that followed, drawing the audience to him, especially in the Act II transformation scene. Stanton brings decades of stage experience to his roles, and it shows in his intelligent shaping of them; Ezra Thomson has had only a few, and where it showed most was in how much energy he spent moving like an old person, compared to Stanton's approach, where Dr. Coppelius tried to move like a young person, but couldn't. Thomson's great moments were the quiet ones: when he checked behind the curtain to be sure that Coppelia -- already Swanhilde by that point -- hadn't been disturbed by the intruders, he paused and then attended to her tenderly. After having been shaken in the square, lost his key, and found his door open at the end of Act I, at the beginning of Act II, Dr. Coppelius sits in his chair to let it all sink in. Thomson sat at the edge, and made himself quietly frightened and small, a shiver-inducing, magical moment. In the central transformation scene, there was a logic not only in how he took part-by-part from Franz, recognized that the physical transformation was not enough, and paused to realized the violence of stealing Franz' soul and the magnitude of that decision, but also in how he waited with a breath of anticipation and thoughtfulness and showed that this was a transforming moment for him as well as the doll.
Leta Biasucci brought moments of subtle clarity to her mime, showing the little transitions from graciousness to pique in her opening scene with Coppelia -- the solo was addressed as much to Coppelia as it was to the audience, giving it a specific context -- and making clear differentiations in the repeats, like in the opening of Act II, as she is tugged back by her friends after they break into Dr. Coppelius' dark workshop. The first time, it "sounded" like, "Ladies, calm yourselves." The second sounded like "Ladies: Calm. Your. Selves." While she showed the fear that is built into the mime, once she made up her mind to approach Coppelia, that was it: there was no hesitation and she was decisive and bold. While she jumped back at first after touching Coppelia's skirt, by the second time, her mind's wheels were spinning, and she was noticably less afraid.
Biascucci has beautiful technique, with lovely shading of her arms and shoulders in adagio, and she looked like an angel floating to Moore's shoulder in the Act III pas de deux. She also has two things that can't be taught: she knows what to do with every second onstage, including how to pause and use quiet to great effect -- like Nakamura, but actualized differently -- and she, like Patricia McBride, is the great rarity: a natural soubrette who dances soubrette roles not only with light, but with shade and a dusky emotional resonance. (It's no wonder that earlier in the season she was brilliant, too, in "Divertimento from 'Baiser de la fee", another role created for McBride.) This would be the peak for many dancers; for her it's just the beginning. Her partner, James Moore, who danced with Mara Vinson in the first run, led with natural authority, while never losing the essence of his character, especially at the end of Act II, which is often a whirlwind of big music and mushy mime rushing off stage to the act's end. Here, he took Swanhilde's admonition and in a few simple gestures and expressions, cut to the chase: "Oh, that? I'm a guy. Why are we even talking about this? Let's get married!" Whether in a contemporary or neoclassical work, he is at his best when his partner has a strong presence and point of view. Although this pairing was the result of injury and a re-arranged casting, it was serendipity for both of them.
In the Act III solos, Elizabeth Murphy was a sunny and gracious Dawn. Sarah Ricard Orza was a bit subdued in it, but was a stellar Prayer, to which she brought gentility and a soft inner warmth, and to which Kylee Kitchens, in the earlier performance, brought a gentle grace, her pointes shimmering across the stage. Both Jessika Anspach and Brittany Reid imbued the Spinner variation with spark and spice. Dec's big movement, infectious playfulness, and just-below-the-surface mischief, was perfection as Discord, and in a role that's most effective when it's played straight, Tissearand danced with a virile elegance as War. The two casts of Jesterettes -- Amanda Clark, Jahna Frantziskonis, Angelica Generosa, Margaret Mullin, Abby Relic, and Carli Samuelson -- showed their unique, but complementary, qualities. Generosa, in both casts, has grown exponentially from a new apprentice to a dynamic performer.
Designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno created the lavish storybook sets and costumes for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of the comic ballet Coppélia, choreographed by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust (after Marius Petipa). Photo © Angela Sterling
"Coppelia" has two group dances in Act I, a Mazurka and a Czardas, and between intricate patterns and repetition, they are a good gauge of how the company is performing the ballet. In both performances the corps excelled, with the dancers maintaining their individuality within the precision of the group. Last year the company lost several senior men in the corps; the current group of men has stepped right up to the plate, and the stage picture was rich. The group sections can sag if the music does, and it's not just a matter of upping the tempi: what provided the foundation for the ballet was the robust approach taken to the music by Music Director Emil de Cou, with this rep ending his first complete season, and the orchestra -- the brass were especially fine -- and the corps matched that energy and robustness for a great end to the regular season.