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Living Doll

Watching Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Coppélia,” which the Seattle company generously released as a digital stream for distant fans, you could easily fall down two historically rewarding rabbit holes.

The first would take you to Paris circa 1870, when “Coppélia” premiered with music by Léo Delibes and choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon (and with almost no partnering because all the male roles were played by women en travesti!), in the decadent last hurrah before the Franco-Prussian War. The second historical rabbit hole would take you to New York City Ballet in 1974, when critical adulation for George Balanchine was at peak frenzy, and generationally definitive dancers including Patricia McBride, Helgi Tomasson, and Merrill Ashley gave landmark performances in his new staging of “Coppélia,” created in close collaboration with Alexandra Danilova, one of the ballet’s great interpreters.

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet, “Coppélia”

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live on TK, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

James Yoichi Moore and Leta Biasucci in “Coppélia” choreographed by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine. Photograph by Angela Sterling

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“Coppélia” sans Balanchine is certainly in the news—Alexei Ratmansky premiered his own new choreography with La Scala last year. But perhaps due to a lingering shock that my hometown company San Francisco Ballet will not dance any Balanchine next season, it was the Balanchine rabbit hole that pulled me in deepest after the curtain fell on PNB’s spirited season-closer.

San Francisco Ballet co-produced this production with PNB in 2010, and it is a winner, offering steady delight for balletomanes and family matinee audiences alike. True, the costumes and set by Roberta Guidi di Bagno arguably take the storybook atmosphere a little too far in a toy store direction with bright pinks and purples against stark white—think Eastern European nineteenth-century village meets Barbie Dream House. But the action, staged by Judith Fugate and Garielle Whittle, could hardly be more satisfying.

For acts one and two, Balanchine and Danilova worked from their memories of the Russian productions they’d danced in their youth: Marius Petipa’s 1884 choreography as updated by Enrico Cecchetti a decade later. Evidently Danilova’s memory served her well, because to a degree rare in story ballets, storytelling, dancing, and music are seamlessly integrated. Best of all (especially as danced by PNB’s Leta Biasucci) we have a heroine with brains and courage.

Leta Biasucci as Swanilda, in “Coppélia” choreographed by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine. Photograph by Angela Sterling

The main character Swanilda isn’t defeated and heartbroken when she sees her boyfriend Franz infatuated with the strangely immobile girl on Dr. Coppélius’s balcony; she has confidence in her worth and knows she has to save Franz from his own stupidity. In Act Two, after breaking into Coppélius’s house with her friends, she drives the action first with her bravery (discovering that the girl on the balcony is just a doll) and then with her quick thinking (putting on the doll’s clothes and pretending to come to life after Dr. Coppélius returns and ensnares a trespassing Franz). Reviews from the premiere of Balanchine’s production compared this act with Natalia Makarova’s version of Swanilda at American Ballet Theatre and decreed Balanchine and Danilova’s staging less farcical, but I have to wonder if the contrast was due to temperamental differences between Makarova and McBride rather than the actual staging; comparing Natalia Osipova in the Bolshoi’s “Coppélia” and Biasucci in Balanchine’s today, the choreographic text of each staging is amazingly aligned.

The Act Three wedding, though, is something different: entirely Balanchine’s choreographic devising. It picks up energy because, for Delibes’ “Waltz of the Hours,” Balanchine doesn’t merely fill time but sends in an astonishing surprise: two dozen baby ballerinas in pink tutus. In a program welcome letter, artistic director Peter Boal notes the box office purpose (Nancy Reynolds notes it, too, in her New York City Ballet bible Repertory in Review): Balanchine figured every kid on stage would bring parents and siblings to fill seats.

Leta Biasucci and James Kirby Rogers in “Coppélia” choreographed by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine. Photograph by Angela Sterling

The Act Three variations that follow the waltz are prime Balanchine in speed and style. Unfortunately, though, the usually elegant soloist Clara Ruf Maldonado had a strange, jerky take on Dawn, throwing her head back in an unnatural flourish after the grand rond de jambe; at first I thought this must be an attempt at something Balanchine wanted in the step, but looking at videos from the 1970s I see nothing like it from earlier interpreters. Elizabeth Murphy was soft perfection as Prayer. Corps member Melissa Guilliams showed incredible confidence in the Spinner variation—big jumps, crisp but never forced attack. War and Discord brought fabulous entrechat from Dammiel Cruz-Garrido and cheeky strength from Cecilia Iliesiu, almost making this hammy inclusion to interpolated music from “Sylvia” worth it.

The final pas de deux for just-married Swanilda and Franz is titled Peace, and it does bring gentle harmony in the slow retiré promenades and a lovely repeated lift where Swanilda rides Franz’s shoulder as though gliding on air. Importantly, though, the couple’s big finale doesn’t negate the heroine’s decisive, self-possessed qualities. (That would feel borderline insulting, given that Franz has never really redeemed himself, and still doesn’t seem to deserve her.) If Princess Aurora gets to gallop alongside her prince at the finish of “Sleeping Beauty,” Swanilda gets to gallop on her own through these nuptial festivities, thank you very much.

Biasucci made of it all a most wonderfully musical romp, her rubato as free and teasing as her act one brisés were fluttering. She is truly a standard-bearer in this role, something I am late in discovering: Evidently Biasucci was first thrown into dancing Swanilda as a corps member when a principal got injured back in 2010, then had a go at it again in 2016. She embodies Swanilda without break from dancing to mime, just as McBride reportedly did, and somehow makes it to the end of act three without seeming to have broken a sweat, too. James Kirby Rogers, soon departing PNB to join Germany’s Semperoper Ballet, did well with the acting, even if his runs between bravura jumps look a little gangly.

If San Francisco Ballet has abandoned Balanchine for the time being, companies other than PNB are making sure this “Coppélia” lives in more than history books: Atlanta Ballet, now led by former SFB principal Gennadi Nedvigin, will dance this same PNB production next March.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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