Just as "Giselle" is one of the great tragedy ballets, "Coppelia" is one of the great comedy ballets. It dates to 1870, originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon along with the delightful music of Leo Delibes. It's a romantic-comedy ballet filled with mistaken identities and humor. Originally, the role of Franz was a "travesty role" performed by a woman in male garb. Therefore the grand pas de deux (partnering in the third act) did not exist until years later. Over time, many great choreographers transformed "Coppelia" with new variations. Minnesota Ballet's own artistic director emeritus, Allen Fields, throws his hat into the ring with his own charming choreography.
Thursday night's dress rehearsal of the whimsical ballet did not disappoint. When the curtain opened, the audience took in a colorful scene depicting a tiny village somewhere in Europe. Ann Gumpper and costume designer Sandra Ehle have given a facelift to the existing set and costume designs by giving them a colorful, fresh and inviting look. Gumpper added rosemaling and color, creating a decorative yet traditional folk-art appearance. Ehle, who updated the original designs by Claudia Clark Myers, brilliantly blended textures that provided the audience with visual richness.
Act One introduced the feisty young couple Swanilda and Franz, played by Emma Stratton and Branson Bice, who had great stage chemistry - both when in love and when quarreling. The choreography displayed the lead dancer's skill well while maintaining the overall folk theme. My first impression was how animated Bice was as Franz. He took the character and made it his own. He is a well-rounded dancer who looks as if he would excel in any genre of dance. He attacked his turns with a calm strength that was beautiful to watch. Stratton was the complete package. She had beautiful technique, expression and artistry. Her subtle confidence and was nothing short of breathtaking.
The town square in Act One was busy with activity. The audience met an ensemble of friends who have been well-matched. All the couples danced well together, but Sarah Gresik and Charles Clark stood out. They both had beautiful lines and moved well together. Their lifts looked effortless with beautiful carriage that complemented each other. Newcomer to the company this season, Brianna Crockett repeatedly caught my eye with her incredible clean lines and technique.
The lively folk dances of the Mazurka dancers were performed with festive precision. The Czardas dancers, along with Dan Westfield, showed off their petite allegro (small, quick movements) with good musicality.
The end of Act One leaves the audience wanting more. We were introduced to Dr. Coppelius, performed by artistic director Robert Gardner. He added depth to the role with his interpretation of a slightly tormented yet deluded inventor who surrounds himself with dolls to keep himself company. Dr. Coppelius is a diabolical character who also pulls on your heart strings a little. The plot thickened as all the lead characters, and their friends, snuck into the doctor's workshop.
The telling of the story is crucial in this particular ballet. The size of the venue at times made it difficult to see more subtle facial expressions, but the overall pantomime of the dancers made it easy to follow and enjoy the story line.
Act Two had me on several occasions laughing out loud. Taking place inside the workshop of Dr. Coppelius, things really got interesting. Swanilda and friends entertained the audience with their mischievous plotting, frightening each other and silliness. The dolls were perfectly still, never breaking character until they came to life with magical, doll-like, mechanical movements. Franz was persuaded by Dr. Coppelius to drink himself into a stupor. Stratton really shined as the disguised Coppelia doll. The shorter variations showcased her mastery of ballet technique as well as her ability to playfully mime.
Act Three brought us back to a festive scene back in the town square, where the ballet concluded with the young lovers' wedding and the pas de deux (a "step for two"). Stratton and Bice perform the choreography beautifully. The level of difficulty increased toward the end of the performance; the promenade balance into penche three times was executed well. The shoulder sit to fish was solid. Stratton's hops on pointe looked light, and Branson's turns in second were clean. The finale was exciting and a lovely climax to a show that sweetly built from one act to the next.
Gardner confidently highlights the quality of the training within the walls of the Minnesota Ballet School by having his upper-level students skillfully perform alongside the company throughout the show. This, along with students moving up the ranks, becoming apprentices and company members, speaks volumes to the health of the school.
Although there are many versions of Coppelia, I personally would have liked to see a larger corps de ballet group do "Waltz of the Hours" and the two missing divertissements, "Dawn" and "Prayer." In the version performed Thursday, the music of "Prayer" was used in the wedding scene. It would have been nice to highlight other company members in these missing pieces, especially in a ballet that is heavy on only two dancing characters.
This is a ballet performance for children, non-ballet people and ballet lovers alike. It has something for everyone: humor, an interesting yet simple story and characters you grow to love. But most importantly, great dancing.
If you go
What: Coppelia by Minnesota Ballet
When: March 22-23 at 7 p.m., March 24 at 3 p.m
Where: DECC Symphony Hall, 350 Harbor Drive
Tickets: ticketmaster.com or DECC ticket office