While he is a champion of modern works and 21st century choreographers at Pacific Northwest Ballet, artistic director Peter Boal also enjoys the full-length story ballets of earlier eras. In particular, he has a soft spot for “Coppélia,” a classic and highly comedic ballet of young lovers and a mad inventor that opens tonight at McCaw Hall.
“I saw it when I was 9 years old,” recalled Boal, “and that was when I decided I wanted to dance. I’d seen a lot of ballet by that age, but I remember asking if I could take lessons during intermission.” That decision led to training at the American School of Ballet and a distinguished 22-year career at New York City Ballet.
The tall tale of “Coppélia” is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Like Hoffmann’s better known “Nutcracker,” the story of dancing doll realistic enough to make men fall in love with her was quickly translated into a full length ballet. “Coppélia” was first staged in Paris by Arthur St. Léon in 1870. It arrived in imperial Russia in 1884, where the ballet was reset by Marius Petipa in St. Petersburg and was then revised by Enrico Cecchetti in 1894. In the 1970s, George Balanchine, working with Russian ballerina Alexandra Danilova, created his own “Coppélia” for New York City Ballet that drew on their favorite memories of dancing it in Russia.
The story stars a pair of peasant lovers, Swanilda and Franz. When a mysterious old man settles in their village, Franz fancies himself in love with the doctor’s “daughter” (the doll Coppélia). In the ballet, which varies greatly from the opera version (“Tales of Hoffmann”), Swanilda manages to substitute herself for the doll, fooling both the inventor, Dr. Coppelius, and her wandering swain. Eventually Franz figures out who is his real love is, and the ballet ends with a happy, extended wedding celebration filling up the third act.
The Balanchine version premiered at PNB in 2010. The set and costumes designed by Roberta Guidi di Bagno for this production remain one of the company’s most opulent. “I’m still astounded by the sets and costumes,” said Boal. “The whole production feels wonderfully extravagant. I remember the head of the Balanchine Trust coming to opening night and saying to me ‘These are very wealthy peasants.’ The designs captured the fantasy of the story.”
When Boal was at the School of American Ballet, Danilova, a renowned Swanilda herself, was still training the next generation of dancers to dance Swanilda/Coppélia. “I didn’t work with her much, but it was a lesson just walking past her in the hallway,” he said, noting that Danilova taught Judith Fulgate. Along with Garielle Whittle, Fulgate staged the ballet at PNB, returning again this year to work with the dancers.
Boal himself danced Dr. Coppelius at PNB, a role he is just advising on this year.
“I really enjoyed Dr Coppelius when I danced it here. It was my first time performing that role and I hadn’t realized how substantial it is. I definitely sweated my first rehearsal,” he said. For this year’s “doctors,” he has given “them suggestions but they all come up with their own interpretations.”
One moment that Boal particularly likes is when the doctor discovers how “life like” that his doll as has become (not realizing that it is Swanilda masquerading as Coppélia). “Balanchine saved most beautiful music for the second act,” said Boal about the sequence where Swanilda is pretending to come to life. “Dr. Coppelius draws back the curtain and you can tell how stuck he is by the moment. One of our dancers wipes away a tear.”
The Balanchine version uses the music of composer Léo Delibes, primarily that written for “Coppélia,” with additional excerpts from “Sylvia, ou la Nymphe de Diane” and “La Source [Naïla].” The score is performed at PNB by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra.
As always, the audience will be invited after the production to join Boal and members of the cast to discuss their own favorite moments as well as gain further insight into the ballet. It also will be a chance to say goodbye to a couple of beloved members of the company. Jessika Anspach is scheduled to do the matinee post-performance Q&A on Saturday (April 16) and Kylee Kitchens will join Boal for the evening post-performance Q&A on the same day. Both dancers recently announced their retirement at the end of this season.
Boal looks forward to hearing from both experienced members of the audience and those who are taking their first trip to the ballet. The story is “well paced and appropriate for children,” he said. “There’s also some very substantial classical ballet in the third act. For the ballet fan who has seen everything or isn’t that fond of story ballets, this is still a great evening because of Balanchine’s choreography.”
“Coppélia” opens tonight at McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center and continues through April 24. For tickets and times, see PNB’s website.