Monday, April 12, 2010

A doll's life

Misa Kuranaga takes down the competition in Coppélia. Photos by Gene Schiavone.

Balanchine's Coppélia (presented through this weekend by Boston Ballet) is unusual in his oeuvre because it's not actually all by him - and thus it has a strange artistic resonance with its own storyline. Based on the same sources as Offenbach's far-darker Tales of Hoffmann, the ballet traces the romantic competition between peasant-girl Swanilda and the eponymous Coppélia for the hand (and heart) of Frantz, the girl-crazy village hunk. Coppélia at first seems to have the edge, as she's too beautiful to be real - because she's not real, in fact; she's actually mechanical. Swanilda, of course, eventually wins the day (and Frantz), by revealing the truth about her rival, but we can't help but notice that as she does so, the ballet goes through its own funny transformation: like Pinocchio, Coppélia blooms from a sweet-but-synthetic confection into the real thing: genuine Balanchine.

This is because as the great choreographer adapted an earlier ballet he had adored as a young man (and which influenced him deeply), he left much of its dancing (devised over the years by the likes of St. Léon, Petipa, and Cecchetti) intact. Even so, we can feel him peeking out, as it were, from behind the curtain of the tradition he loved: there's a peasant dance in Act I, for instance, that must owe its unfolding complexity to Mr. B, and there are similar glints of inspiration in some of the solos of Act II; slowly, the dancing becomes more and more like his own. But it's not until Act III - which Balanchine re-choreographed in its entirety - that the mysterious power of his mature command of the form envelopes the stage. Don't worry - it's worth the wait; and in fact, Balanchine (perhaps through some unconscious sense of compensation) throws just about everything he's got at the finale, and then some - including two dozen little girls in tutus (below) who come on like a pink streamroller of adorability. If they don't break your heart, well, you may be as cold inside as Coppélia.

It just doesn't get any cuter than this.

And until then, it's not like there's nothing to watch - or hear: in fact, the score, by Léo Delibes (of Lakmé fame), is probably the best romantic ballet music to be found outside of Tchaikovsky (its mazurka and waltz have both entered the standard repertoire), and after a little opening roughness, the Ballet orchestra, under the reliable baton of Jonathan McPhee, played it with lively fire. The Ballet's corps likewise gave that mazurka a forceful stomp, and leads Misa Kuranaga and Nelson Madrigal both charmed in their opening pantomimes and dances (even if they were playing against a set, borrowed from Pacific Northwest Ballet, that felt somehow high-school level - although don't worry, the sets improved with each act). Kuranaga doesn't, perhaps, project as much raw personality as the Ballet's other prima ballerinas - but her porcelain loveliness, ironically enough, is rather doll-like, which makes her competition (in Frantz's mind) with Coppélia psychologically credible. And her technique has always been utterly impeccable, which gave the relatively simple steps of the first scenes a lovely transparency.

And Kuranaga found the smart, saucy mischief required to put over the second act - in which Swanilda sneaks into the spooky workshop of her rival's creator, Dr. Coppélius (the wonderful Boyko Dossev, with Kuranaga at left) to give him, and her future husband (who has climbed in at the window!) the what-for by impersonating their fantasy Barbie run amok. Here the ballet eschews entirely the weird undertones of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann tale (in which the hero, via a magic spy-glass, perceives the robot-girl as real, and his real-life sweetheart as a robot). Instead, Swanilda delivers a standard-issue spanking about the virtues of real life over fantasy - with dotty old Coppélius getting the brunt of it rather than the merely-naïve Frantz, who simply comes to his senses once he realizes he's been in love with a cyborg. Still, even if the action's basically sitcom-level, Kuranaga and Dossev - probably the Ballet's best comic actor - made it a hoot, and the pair played off each other beautifully "in the moment," as they say; when Kuranaga couldn't quite pin on a veil for her Spanish variation, she just tossed it, in character - and Dossev, not missing a beat, retrieved it and began tapping it like a tambourine.

Of course the dancing pyrotechnics begin once the story has wound down, and Balanchine clears the stage for a dazzling set of wedding divertissements in Act III. Here we got all those little sweethearts, led by a graciously poised Dalay Parrondo, in "The Waltz of the Hours" - there were 24 for of 'em, I guess for every hour in the day - as well as a set of sparkling turns by such domestic virtues as "Prayer" and "Spinning" (no "MBA" or "Independent Career" for Swanilda, I guess). Here the biggest impression was made by young Whitney Jensen, who seems to always etch her solos with understated-yet-dazzling precision: her carriage is consistently perfect, her legwork remarkably clean. Next came an unexpected explosion of camp, when "War" and "Discord" came prancing on with spears, and in get-ups that Cher might have worn to the Oscars: the variations were cute, but soloists Melissa Hough and Jaime Diaz seemed to be spinning their wheels. And Frantz's closing variation did not go well - Madrigal, who's blessed with a ripely romantic stage presence, often seems to wane in power as an evening progresses, and here, although he did fine in his cabrioles, he just couldn't land his double tours (to be fair, the Ballet doesn't really have any danseur who can nail these reliably - it's their last technical gap).

The girls came back for a fond farewell, however (once again wrangled expertly by Balanchine Trust rep Garielle Whittle and children’s ballet mistress Melanie Atkins), to banish any thoughts of this sudden wobble in the performance, and the whole company got to gambol in one of Balanchine's most dazzling conceits - a huge "galop" bursting with energy and high kicks. Which made for a terrifically charming close to what is, in the end, a terrifically charming ballet.