Coppélia , San Francisco Ballet
Frances Chung in Balanchine's CoppÈlia. (© Erik Tomasson)

Coppélia , San Francisco Ballet

Helgi Tommason, Artistic Director
War Memorial Opera House
Mar. 8-13, 2016
Reviewed Mar. 8

The aged artisan, Dr. Coppelius (Pascal Molat), likes to take a drink now and then. His exquisite doll “Coppélia,” is the canard for Swanilda (Frances Chung). Swanilda is the frisky soubrette whose course of true love with Franz (Vitor Luiz) is running every which way but smooth. Set in Carpathian Poland, this labyrinthine plot about a town full of simpletons harboring a love triangle complicated by a trompe l’oeil, imports warring cultural interventions from nearly every other European nation. Polish jokes aside, there are banners in French, divertissements from Hungary, Italy, and Spain, and costumes suggestive of Turkey. It’s as if the dramaturge took a gander at Dr. Coppelius, and declared, Sally-Meets-Harry style, that he would have a swig of whatever the old man was having.

The choreography in this version by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine, updates the original by Marius Petipa. At first glance, it looks to be more academic than inventive. Though Balanchine is known for having loathed using dance steps or theatricality, let alone mime, to tell a story, he rolls out this one using all three. That choice in no way deters him from incorporating fastidious footwork, and even the tiniest pink-clad Level Four student takes pains not to come down fully from relevé to flat, remaining true-blue to the Balanchine orthodoxy.

Chung looks like she’s been waiting her whole career to dance this role, and brings to it both a curl-tossing insouciance, and zest for intrigue. Her misadventures with Franz, danced brightly by Luiz, both lead and mislead the duo into a curious incident about a doll in the night. Franz, in the company of friends in the Galicia Village Square, taunts the drunken Coppelius, who is returning home after some serious binge drinking. Swanilda, having found the key that Dr. Coppelius drops during the melee, inveigles a retinue of friends into tiptoeing into the eccentric old man’s workshop to snoop around. The workshop (scenic and costume design by Roberta Guidi di Bagno) is a dark comedy in its own right, with skewed shelves tentatively restraining falling-down books, and dollworks-in-progress that hang menacingly from the rafters. Seated on the floor in various positions are wind-up dolls who stretch, do splits, cock their heads, arms rebounding, all self-activating in an accelerating synchronized drill. Still seated in her place on the balcony is Coppélia, whom Swanilda trades places with. Meanwhile Franz sits in a stupor induced by concoctions Coppelius instills. This all takes place in a time before there were Quaaludes.

The peasant dances may have delighted European audiences of old. Nowadays, to the unmindful eye, they can seem dated. Look carefully, and you see that they introduce intricate patterns, where lines of dancers reverse themselves, and footwork and timing go more technically challenging than in the stock cantering and balancé sequences that usually cover costume or set changes.

In the pas de deux, Chung delivers lightning brisés, and blithe yet piercing extensions, with Luiz as lithe as she is blithe, responsive, and yet carefree. In the ballet-iconic “Waltz of the Golden Hours,” the children’s corps is professional, present and overall a joy to watch as they spirit in the deft Lauren Strongin. Much the gamine, were Strongin not altogether boldly enchanting, she could have been taken for one of the students. Sasha De Sola in golden hues sweeps from downstage to up as Dawn, and Sofiane Sylve, a vision in shades of blue, is a prodigious penitent in Prayer. Koto Ishihara moves comfortably into the role of Spinner, and Jennifer Stahl and Hansuke Yamamoto lead Discord and War in armored costumes that indeed seem discordant, issuing as they do from eras before ballet bested jousting.

One pageant begets another until peace is restored between Franz and Swanilda, and a wedding lends the official seal to true love, as Dr. Coppelius carries away the faux version, stripped bare and limp, in his arms. We salute Molat for his superb rendering of the stiff and discombobulated Coppelius. This veteran danseur is always as remarkable in his character interpretations as he is in straight roles—be they classical or contemporary. When he retires at the end of the 2016-17 season, he will have left his indelible and non-pareil stamp on a company that owes him a great debt of gratitude.

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.