“Coppélia has been called one of the happiest ballets in existence . . . one of the triumphant comic ballets.”
With that upbeat line, Pacific Northwest Ballet has been staging a massive advertising campaign for the Seattle premiere of George Balanchine’s 1974 version of “Coppélia.” It seems to be working: Opening night brought out a friendly, good-sized audience that was ready to cheer at every possible cue — principal dancers’ entrances and exits, boisterous village men tossing their partners, streams of diminutive, wide-eyed student ballerinas, and just about every appearance of PNB director Peter Boal, who took a turn as the bumbling inventor Dr. Coppelius on opening night.
Coming in at $1.2 million, “Coppélia” is the most expensive production in PNB’s 2009-2010 season, and it is indeed a rich, mouth-watering confection. Overhauled by Italian scenic and costume designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, the ballet opens with a soft U-shaped stage, set with fanciful buildings encircling a cozy central plaza and a huge bow of wisteria softening the ceiling into an arc.
When the dancers start to move they seem held in the embrace of all these curved edges as if dancing inside a clam shell, which is a perfect complement to Balanchine’s Act I choreography, a series of gestures and formations that seem to play off an inverted V shape, with pairs and lines of dancers swelling and receding like a fireplace bellows.
With a great architectural tension on the stage, a swirl of painterly costumes, and Léo Delibes’ buoyant score (conducted by Tulsa Ballet’s Nathan Fifield), there is never a slack moment in this production. Though it’s a light-hearted plot — a man falls in love with a doll, so his paramour impersonates the doll and wins him back — it is still a classic Romantic ballet with trimmings (village dances, a soap opera drama with twin characters and a drugged hero, a pageant of celebratory dances, etc).
Yet in Balanchine’s hands it books along at a sprightly clip, and the exquisite doll dance is a delicious, eerie choreographic nougat. (When Nakamura deftly mimics the doll’s stiff torso and un-jointed hands, it now echoes strangely of Michael Jackson, another doll-like figure who sparked an almost unnatural adoration.)
This new “Coppélia” is definitely busy and bumbling. But is it a happy place? I’m not sure about that. The arc of the story is pretty cynical and unresolved, with Swanhilda buffetted from one crummy guy (a straying Franz) to another (Dr. Coppelius, who tries to cop a feel of her thigh). Then she seduces Franz with a trick and — voila! — they get married! There’s really no tenderness in the story, no permeability; even Dr. Coppelius’ fervent love for his doll creation is entirely mocked.
But if it isn’t always a happy place, it certainly is beautiful. Under Randall G. Chiarelli’s lighting design, Di Bagno’s new costumes are luminous. She traded out the usual dirndl dress for a series of dreamy candy-colored tutus and blouses that float as they move, soft and sweet as peonies.
Unfortunately, these exquisite costumes may be working against the storyline. They aren’t conducive to humor or pratfalls. And without nationalistic dress, this village of princess pink- and-purple and Toontown houses echoes a little too closely to that other happiest place on earth.
But then you have the consummate performances by PNB principals Kaori Nakamura (Swanhilda) and Jonathan Porretta (Franz), who will turn themselves inside out for a role, who take nothing for granted, who engage the audience with every gesture they make. Their focus brings all eyes back to the choreography at every turn, and Balanchine (working with Alexandra Danilova) aimed to recreate his memories of the simple power of early Russian stagings of the ballet.
The pique turns and split leaps and tour jetes are replete with so much history and ethnicity they trump the whispery Euro Disney undercurrents. And with Nakamura and Porretta leading the charge, the company of stellar dancers at PNB fills these moments to the brim.
End note: Though it wasn’t possible to see from the audience, Kaori Nakamura was injured during the first act of “Coppélia” on opening night (June 3). PNB just announced that Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand (a young corps de ballet member) are going on for Nakamura/Porretta at the Saturday (June 5) matinee.