Coping with Coppélia

The dancers of the Houston Ballet must still be a bit shaken by artistic director Ben Stevenson's near-resignation late last month (see The Insider, "Politics of the Dance," by Tim Fleck, March 8). Opening night of Stevenson's staging of the classic Coppélia was marred by more than a few missteps: a hand on the ground to steady a landing here, an awkward partnering moment there, and a corps de ballet member who always seemed to be getting ahead of the group.

To be fair, Stevenson's choreography is extremely challenging, especially in the final act, which traditionally has been a problem in Coppélia, although for very different reasons. When Arthur Saint-Léon first choreographed the ballet for the Paris Opera in 1870, critics charged that the divertissements in the third act were extraneous and anticlimactic. The fairy tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann (of Nutcracker fame) is all wrapped up by the end of Act II.

Fickle Franz falls for a mysterious and robotic girl perched on the balcony of the Bavarian village's crazy old toymaker, inspiring jealousy in his unfortunately named girlfriend, Swanilda. Knowing neither that Coppélia is a doll nor that the toymaker hopes to turn her into a living, breathing daughter with the help of some unsuspecting cad's "life force," Franz and Swanilda sneak separately into his workshop. Swanilda, the brighter of the two, masquerades as Coppélia-come-to-life, foils the toymaker's warped plan and saves her boyfriend's butt. As the toymaker beholds the limp and de-costumed body of his creation, the audience awaits a curtain call. Instead, there is a whole act still to go, with lots of dancing peasants and strange allegorical characters such as "Dawn" and "Prayer."

In his version, Stevenson saves the final act from irrelevancy by making it even more climactic than the end of the narrative. The act features the exhilarating dancing we've been waiting for all evening. Forgiving the opening-night wobbles, Yin Le as Franz and Lauren Anderson as Swanilda deliver a breathtakingly beautiful pas de deux followed by supercharged solos. Anderson flirted mercilessly with the crowd as she moved through fast footwork and confident pirouettes. Her match in both athleticism and acting, Le soared in sweeping barrel turns and sky-high switch-leg leaps. Best of all, Le and Anderson achieved that incredibly rare quality in classical ballet: chemistry.

Despite the success of the final act, Stevenson does not avoid all of Coppélia's pitfalls. While he does devote significantly more time to Dr. Coppélius than many other interpretations, he does not develop the character's dark side. The toymaker is so lonely and obsessed with his Frankensteinian work that he is willing to take Franz's life. He should be at least a little bit sinister, but played by retired Houston Ballet character dancer Dorio Pérez, Coppélius is doddering and harmless. In one cartoonish scene, he sneaks up behind Franz and freezes, pretending to be a toy, when the boy turns around. Coppélia is certainly best known as the great comedy of ballet, but Stevenson takes the slapstick to a new level of silliness, with knocking knees and predictable pratfalls.

The story line gets bogged down with long Hungarian mazurka dances. Much of the choreography here is frontal and static, far from the organic and visually captivating group work for which Stevenson is known. When the tale does progress, it is with melodramatic and sometimes incomprehensible pantomime. (A fist pounding into a palm must be the international sign for something -- we just can't figure out what.)

Nevertheless, the Houston Ballet's Coppélia is a perfectly nice, light turn on a classic, with choreography that's sympathetic to Leo Delibes's rhythmic score and with magical sets by Tony Award-winner Desmond Heeley. And the fireworks provided by Anderson and Le in the final act brought the opening-night audience to its feet.

Stevenson was noticeably absent from the stage for the bows and bravos. But when the houselights came up, he couldn't be missed. He stood in the middle of the Wortham Center's seats, momentarily prevented by the crowd from escaping. The ballet patrons shook Stevenson's hand, presumably wishing him well and hoping he'll stick around a while.

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Lauren Kern
Contact: Lauren Kern