Houston Ballet's Charming Coppélia is a Childish Delight

Houston Ballet Principal Karina González Swanilda in Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia.
Houston Ballet Principal Karina González Swanilda in Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia. Photo by Amitava Sarka
Ben Stevenson’s take on the three-act ballet Coppélia premiered in Houston almost 30 years ago, so you could say it’s ours. And with anything we lay claim to making a return, the pressure’s on. Luckily, the Houston Ballet isn’t going to let you down now.

Based on a tale by E.T.A. Hoffman (yes, that E.T.A. Hoffman), Coppélia takes place in a small village, where Dr. Coppélius (Ian Casady), a local toy maker, lives with his beautiful daughter, the titular Coppélia. She sits each day, unnaturally stationary and never turning a page of the book she’s reading, on the doctor’s second-story balcony. It’s not a spoiler to say that she’s not really his daughter, but a doll, so let’s just say it: She’s a mechanical doll. Coppélia seemingly ignores Swanilda (Karina González), a local girl trying to make friends with her, and later Franz (Charles-Louis Yoshiyama), Swanilda’s intended. Franz, however, isn’t discouraged so much as intrigued, and when Dr. Coppélius’s tinkering leads to Coppélia (incidentally) blowing him a kiss — which Swanilda happens to spy — the game is on.

Jealous and angry, Swanilda calls off their engagement and, much to her dismay, is seemingly vindicated when a custom revolving around a piece of wheat seems to claim that their love is not true. Though tenuously reunited by the time they part company that evening, Swanilda and Franz are both still captivated, though for very different reasons, by the mysterious Coppélia. So, when Dr. Coppélius drops the key to his house after being accosted by a group of 19th-century hooligans, Swanilda can’t help but lead herself and her friends in to meet Coppélia once and for all. Little does she know, Franz himself has taken some initiative and is paying Coppélia a visit, this time with a ladder. And little does either of them know, Dr. Coppélius has also returned home and is none too pleased at the idea of any intruders.

A fun aspect of Coppélia is that it’s Swanilda’s irrepressible will the drives the story forward, and González is a feisty Swanilda, headstrong and vivacious. It’s with ease that González establishes her character, going from a sprightly, delicate waltz designed to make Coppélia’s acquaintance to childlike tantrum, complete with angry pout, stamping feet, and flying fists when “the girl” refuses to acknowledge her. González’s Swanilda is a lovable brat, and no where is it on display better than when she becomes Coppélia in the second act.

As Coppélia, González bobbles and wobbles, body jerking stiffly, knees and elbows bent at right angles. It’s a brilliant performance designed to trick Casady’s Dr. Coppélius, but not one that González’s Swanilda won’t break from in order to troll the toy maker. The workshop becomes her playground, and she hits him, runs around destructively, and pokes him in the behind with a sword. She also dances an all-too-brief robotic pas de deux with Casady, an energetic fan dance, and a playful Scottish jig of sorts while getting around to saving her on-again, off-again fiancé Franz.

click to enlarge Houston Ballet Principals Karina González and Ian Casady as Swanilda and Dr. Coppélius in Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKA
Houston Ballet Principals Karina González and Ian Casady as Swanilda and Dr. Coppélius in Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia.
Photo by Amitava Sarka
In Charles-Louis Yoshiyama’s hands, Franz comes off as a man who just can’t seem to help himself. Still, he exhibits some small moments of sincerity, such as looking genuinely distressed when the wheat claims his love for Swanilda isn’t true. And, more importantly, he plays the comedy of the piece well, with one particular moment of running away that would make Steve Martin proud.

It’s Coppélia’s third act that’s served as foil to choreographers everywhere since, well, 1870, when it was first choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon for the Paris Opera. With the plot more or less wrapped up after the second, audiences everywhere and for a long time have probably asked themselves, “Now what?” as they await the third. Stevenson deftly dodges that question and asks another: “How much do you like dance?” If the answer is “lots,” which if you’re reading this it should be, then Stevenson’s got a treat for you. The third act is far from anticlimactic; in fact, it’s filled to the brim with all the dancing we might have otherwise missed out on in this mime-heavy show.

Allison Miller is a sweet, effervescent Dawn, and Yuriko Kajiya is a serene, almost wistful Prayer. The Artists of Houston Ballet converge on the stage for two group dances, the Betrothal Dance and the Dance of the Hours. The bouncy, jaunty Betrothal Dance is delightful, but the Dance of the Hours is absolutely enchanting, characterized by staggered synchronization, dainty pointe work and sweeping port de bras.

The third act also features González and Yoshiyama’s lovely, and lift-heavy, pas de deux. Yoshiyama gracefully carries and twirls González around the stage, before they each return for a couple of dizzying solos. Yoshiyama flies high on his own, and throws in a couple of impressive entrechats, while González flirtatiously prances about, showing off some beautiful lines in the process. And, not for nothing, the third act features a return to Tony Award-winner Desmond Heeley’s beautiful village set.

The production returns to Heeley’s gorgeous, original set and costume designs. The costumes are lush, from the dresses (swishy and colorful) to the red boots outfitted on the Artists of Houston Ballet that notably command attention. The costumes fit well in the village Heeley imagined, which itself is rustic and earthy, and full of depth. Crisp autumn leaves frame the tableau and a church and church spire that tower behind the townsfolk serve as eye-catching set pieces. This set also contrasts well with the production’s second set, Dr. Coppélius’s cavernous, wooden workshop populated with intricately interesting yet creepy dolls. Duane Schuler’s lighting designs wane with the day in the village and tiptoe around ominously in the workshop.

click to enlarge Houston Ballet Prinicpal Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Houston Ballet Academy Professional Program 2 Student Carolina Valverdein in Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKA
Houston Ballet Prinicpal Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Houston Ballet Academy Professional Program 2 Student Carolina Valverdein in Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia.
Photo by Amitava Sarka
The music, by Léo Delibes and performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Ermanno Florio, is a joyful trip through varying styles and sounds, from rousing and bombastic to melodic and twinkling. The music of the mazurka and czardas allow for quick feet while the magical tinkling in the second act provides the perfect soundtrack for a bunch of dolls coming to life.

Coppélia is not a production without concerns. Namely, glossing over Dr. Coppélius’s willingness to drug someone and commit murder in order to bring his doll-daughter to life, the why and how of whose creation itself raises some questions. You can thank Casady for the ease with which you can slide past these things, because his excellent, comedic turn as the crotchety, umbrella-wielding geezer is too good to ask the tough questions. But they are there.

In a lot of ways, it’s difficult not to think of The Nutcracker when musing over Coppélia. Both works draw from E.T.A. Hoffman short stories, both have been masterfully rendered for the stage by Stevenson (and Heeley, for that matter), and both involve some delightful, all-too-lifelike dolls at the center of a fairy tale. But where The Nutcracker transports you to a hazy, otherworldly dreamland, Coppélia just reminds you of being a kid, where the jokes are a little sillier, the (prat)falls a little harder, and the world bigger, brighter and absolutely full of wonder. So, see Coppélia and treat your inner child. You only have to go as far as the Wortham to do it.

Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Through May 26. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $25 to $175.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.