There is no other ballet quite like “Coppélia.” A romantic comedy spiced with elements of an action-thriller and accompanied by one of the most joyful ballet scores ever written, “Coppélia” never fails to delight and entertain.
Originally created in France by Arthur Saint-Léon for the Opéra de Paris in 1870 to the music by Léo Delibes and subsequently restaged by Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti for St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet, “Coppélia” has always been a staple of the classical repertory—the last whiff of balletic Romanticism. The ballet’s plot is based on the dark tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Der Sandmann” (“The Sandman”) and “Die Puppe” (“The Doll”); yet, the Hoffmannesque undertones notwithstanding, the whole affair is a wickedly funny concoction, replete with colorful personages, glorious music and effervescent dancing. It tells an improbable story about two young lovers, Swanilda and Frantz, an eccentric toymaker Dr. Coppélius and his beautiful daughter Coppélia, who captured imagination of Frantz and almost ruined wedding prospects of Swanilda. It all ends well for Swanilda, however, who wins her wayward fiancé back by revealing the true identity of Coppélia, proving that she is a lifeless, mechanical doll.
New York City Ballet’s production of “Coppélia”—which the company performed during the final week of the 2017/18 season at Lincoln Center—was created in 1974 by George Balanchine together with Alexandra Danilova, who danced the ballet’s starring role through the 1930’s and 40’s and was regarded as one of the definitive Swanildas in the ballet’s history. They recreated the original choreography relying on their memories from their dancing days, with Balanchine adding his own choreography while reconstructing the third act anew.
On Saturday matinee, in her debut performance as Swanilda, soloist Erica Pereira brought the vivacious qualities of her heroine to the fore. With her sweet girlish features, upbeat personality and quick-silver footwork, she was perfectly suited for this role. Her dancing, particularly in allegro sequences, was crisp and clear; her characterization pitch-perfect throughout.
In Act I, she was endearingly charming and flirtatious in her passages with Frantz, her double-dealing boyfriend, showing first her sincere affection for the young man and later a great deal of suspicion and concern, when she noticed his keen romantic attention to the mysterious girl next door. Displaying a wonderful comic verve, Pereira played “The Ear of Wheat” scene, in which Swanilda is looking for a proof of her lover’s fidelity, with engaging naturalness; she was convincingly horrified when Frantz pinned down her gift—a beautiful butterfly—to his shirt instead of admiring it and setting it free; and she was thoroughly amusing while trying to communicate with the motionless and unsmiling Coppélia, her enigmatic rival for Frantz’s affection.
But it was in the action-driven second act that Pereira emerged as a true comedienne. Fueled by jealousy, disappointment and desire to find out the truth, her Swanilda was irresistibly funny when she, aided by a chorus of her girlfriends, fearlessly broke into the workshop of the old Coppélius and impersonated his precious doll, making him believe that his Coppélia indeed came to life. The vividness of Pereira’s pantomime was as wonderful as the animation and articulation of her dancing. With lively ardor, she sailed through the Spanish and Scottish variations of Act II and brought loads of bravura and brilliance to the Act’s III wedding pas de deux.
Anthony Huxley, also in his debut performance, was a boyishly eager and charming Frantz—an impressionable young lad, confused rather than deceitful. His hero seemed to be honestly smitten with the alluring and immobile Coppélia, whose stone-like demeanor was a complete opposite to the upbeat and lively personality of Swanilda. It appeared that he was totally in love with both women and didn’t think for a bit that there was a problem. While Huxley’s dancing was technically accomplished, I wished for more conviction and lucidity in his acting. His mime scenes often lacked spontaneity, coming across rather bland. Yet he acquitted himself in the dancey third act. His partnering skills in the wedding pas de deux were top-notch, his hero’s transgressions all forgiven each time he would catch Swanilda in one of those heart-stopping “fish dives.”
Robert La Fosse, listed in the program notes as guest artist, gave a poignant portrayal of the eccentric toymaker Dr. Coppélius. Former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, La Fosse is no stranger to “Coppélia,” having danced the role of Frantz in the late 1980s and the role of the old Coppélius in the late 1990s. In his Saturday performance, he never missed a single note or shading in his characterization, adding some memorable inflections of his own. He played his role to the hilt, looking thoroughly overjoyed, even elated, when he thought that his beloved Coppélia came to life; yet when he realized that it was Swanilda’s masquerading, he looked unconditionally brokenhearted. A masterful actor, La Fosse made his protagonist genuine and real: we felt for his loneliness, we laughed at his alchemic attempt to siphon life from the sleeping Frantz to make Coppélia a human being; but at the same time we sympathized with him when his most precious creation, together with his dreams, were destroyed.
From the supporting cast, the ebullient Lauren King sparkled in the “Dawn” solo, her light leaps looking particularly lovely; Emilie Gerrity danced with appealing inner passion in the “Prayer” solo; and Meagan Mann breezed through her folk-infused variation as “Spinner.” The corps de ballet delivered the national dances of Act I with brio and panache (though their costumes are in need of serious refurbishment); and a special note goes to the flock of adorable children—the students of the School of American Ballet—who danced with utmost dedication and professionalism in the “Waltz of the Golden Hours,” adding to this “Coppélia” a hefty dose of cuteness and sunshine.