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American Ballet Theatre - “Coppelia”

WANTED: An Old Fashioned Star

by Mary Ellen Hunt

June 26, 2004 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

If anyone in the world knows “Coppelia,” it’s Frederic Franklin, the merry-eyed nonagenarian who first danced the ballet some seventy years ago and whose staging the American Ballet Theatre has been running during this penultimate week of their Metropolitan Opera House season.

According to press reports, there have been several casts of interest for this ballet during the week: Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes,
Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky. On Saturday night I caught one of the less heralded but moderately appealing casts of Gillian Murphy as the saucy Swanilda with Marcelo Gomes as her fickle amour Franz.

To be more accurate, Murphy didn’t come across so much as saucy, but rather determined to telegraph to us that the character that she was portraying was saucy, if you catch my drift. Although I admire Murphy’s pretty technique – she has the solid four pirouettes that seem to come standard with Gaynor Minden pointe shoes, a springy jump, and a fetching balance in arabesque – I have yet to see her be truly captivating in a role.

She certainly doesn’t strike me as the soubrette type that is so necessary for the charm to really work in a ballet as frothy as “Coppelia.” Admittedly, Murphy came across more strongly in the second act’s toy workshop scene -- where she was playful and sweet -- than in the first act, where her petulant and somewhat bossy air made her lover’s straying eye seem not unreasonable. I found myself most objecting, however, to her tendency to overdo. Four pirouettes, but the last one eked out off the music; lengthy balances fought for impressively, but again, off the music. I was put in mind of a story that Franklin himself once recounted about Danilova, who was no slouch at balancing herself.

“Sometimes she’d balance so long that I’d push her off,” he said with a straight face. “It was vulgar.”

For his part, Gomes made a boyish, if not especially ardent Franz. His miming passages were more convincing than Murphy’s, and his solos generous, yet still precise. Still, one couldn’t help feeling that there was something missing.

If we needed reminding about what the missing element was, there was a clue in a recent review of “Coppelia” by Anna Kisselgoff, who recounted an anecdote about how Makharbek Vasiev, the Kirov Ballet’s director, had chanced to see Frederic Franklin just a couple of years ago in “Swan Lake.”

“Who is the man who was the tutor in ‘Swan Lake?” Vasiev reportedly asked.“He has the presence of a star.”

And it’s true. Even with all the fantastically gifted dancers on the stage, when Franklin came onstage, my opera glasses were trained exclusively on him -- because he IS a star. Frustratingly, however, the glamorous, I-can’t-stop-watching-and-wondering-what-they’ll-do-next quality has been slow to develop in the youngest generation of principals at ABT, a company which in my mind has always been about glamorous stars.

In the third act wedding pas de deux, Murphy and Gomes had a few nicely arranged moments, including the traditional, but strangely contortionist backwards “fish” pose. But one has the sense that you would have to have the charm of Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin to pull off some of the dead spots in the supported adagio (I’ve always wondered why it’s necessary for some 16 counts to be taken up with repeated promenades and balances of the ballerina). Gomes’s solos, while filled with musically odd combinations of steps, nevertheless showed off cleanly knife-like cabrioles and a manege curtailed only by the size of the stage and which concluded with the obligatory trio of double saut de basques.

Among the standouts in the rest of the cast, Kirk Peterson showed off serious dramatic chops in the key role of Dr. Coppelius, and Swanilda’s friends were effectively sparkling. I particularly liked the friend who, during the Wheat Dance, listened in as Swanilda shook the wheat and then shot her a “No, I don’t hear anything – but, come on, are you nuts?” look.

Soloist Maria Riccetto turned in a serenely controlled, but beautifully detailed “Prayer” variation, with Monique Meunier leading in as “Dawn.” Possibly my favorite performance of the evening though was that of corps member Sasha Dmochowski, who led the grand mazurka with delightful gusto and a real smile of pleasure on her face. It held the kind of sincerity that brought the whole ballet into focus, and I spent the rest of the act searching her out on stage whenever there were crowds.

The beautiful candy-colored sets and forest green hangings by Tony Straiges along with festive costumes by Patricia Zipprodt hail from ABT’s older 1991 production of the Arthur Saint-Leon classic, and they offer a solidly storybook setting for the dancers, most of whom seem to relish their infectious joy of the Leo Delibes mazurkas and waltzes. Conductor David LaMarche also set a bright atmosphere with sprightly tempos that helped the lengthier parts of the first act immeasurably.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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