American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
May 30, 31 (M and E)
-- by Jerry Hochman
Most balletgoers go to one or two ballets per season; and some dedicated fans or culture mavens perhaps to one performance per ballet per season. This skews the way one evaluates a performance, particularly in a classic, full-length story ballet. From eavesdropping on conversations over the years (it's difficult to avoid), the scuttlebutt is almost always positive. These favorable comments are certainly, in part, the response to performances that are legitimately good, but also in part as a manifestation of the 'self-fulfilling prophecy' I mentioned in a review several years ago. That is: ‘I paid through the nose for my ticket, picked out this particular dancer to see because he/she has a great reputation or a Russian last name or looks the part or must be good because the brochure or some mainstream critic says so, and I drove all the way from wherever to see it -- therefore, by golly, the performance was really good, otherwise I’ve wasted all this time and money and would spend the evening complaining to my date/spouse/significant other, which is never a good idea’. And at the level of major companies like American Ballet Theatre, the performance quality usually is ‘really good’ in the overall scheme of things, whatever the dancer’s rank, age, height, hair color or national origin.
But there is a core of ballet addicts whose faces one sees at virtually every performance. These crazies (I say that fondly) may be found in cheap seats or standing room. Because they go so frequently, they have a repository of knowledge and the ability to compare and contrast one fine performance from another that the typical audience member can’t possibly have. They don’t always agree – this is New York, after all, and everyone has his or her own soundly-based and significantly biased opinion, but the fact that they can place his or her opinion in a context, even if limited to performances that take place in New York, makes the opinion more valid. And seeing consecutive performances by different dancers in the same roles takes this ‘context’ to another level, and allows for legitimate observations that the dancer one day gave a superior performance to a dancer another day, even though the dancer ‘the other day’ may have looked ‘really good’.
Viewing the three performances of “Coppelia” that I saw over the weekend provides a clear example of why seeing an isolated performance may skew the viewer’s opinion of that performance, usually for the better. I left Friday’s performance thinking that Misty Copeland and her partner Herman Cornejo danced well, and gave fine performances. And they did. But upon seeing the performances the next day of Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin, and Gillian Murphy and Jared Matthews, it was clear that the performances by Ms. Copeland and Mr. Cornejo weren’t on the same level. I’ll explain in greater detail below.
First, however, I must highlight the extraordinary performances of Yuriko Kajiya in the “Prayer” variation in Act III on Friday and Saturday afternoon. If a ‘prayer’ were a corporeal being, it would be Ms. Kajiya. Her performance was a spiritual tour de force. It’s not appropriate, or sensible, to compare a full length performance with a performance of a featured role that lasts a few minutes. That being said, however, Ms. Kajiya’s performance was a highlight of this season so far. Magnificent.
The story of “Coppelia” is based on two stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Der Sandmann” and “Die Puppe” (the Puppet). (Another of his stories provided the basis for the “The Nutcracker.”) The Hoffmann stories were adapted by Charles-Louis-Etienne Nuitter for the ballet “Coppelia,” choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon to a score by Leo Delibes, which premiered at the Paris Opera in 1870. Hoffmann was the Edgar Allen Poe of his time – his stories are frequently macabre, and his characters, in the original stories (e.g., Coppelius, Drosselmeyer), can be dark, evil, menacing, and skilled in the black arts. Converting these stories into comic ballets could not have been easy. Imagine “The Casque of Amontillado,” “The Telltale Heart,” or “The Raven” converted into a comic ballet. (Someone get Mel Brooks.) That the set of ABT’s production (which is otherwise undistinguished) includes disembodied faces with oversized eyes, as well as a skeleton, may be a nod to Hoffmann’s original story.
The ballet production has a dark side as well. Saint-Leon died two days after the ballet’s initial season ended a few months after it began, cut short prematurely by the Franco-Prussian War. And the story of the original Swanilda is particularly tragic. The initial Swanilda, found after other potential choices were deemed unsuitable for the role, was 16 year old Giuseppina Bozzachi, whose performance reportedly was a sensation (I missed it). She danced the role 18 times until the Paris Opera shut its doors, and died on her 17th birthday, reportedly because with the Paris Opera closed she was no longer getting paid, and weakened by lack of food, she succumbed to smallpox.
Based on photographs I’ve seen of Ms. Bozzachi, the ‘type’ that Saint-Leon and Delibes were looking for was a sweet-looking, short, pretty young ballerina. While other approaches to the role can work, to me the ballet’s creators’ ideal Swanilda was…ideal.
The story of “Coppelia” is simple, and simple-minded. In a bucolic German town lived the town sweetheart, Swanilda, and a not very bright boy named Franz. Swanilda loves Franz, and Franz loves Swanilda, except he also loves this hot little doll who is always catching rays on a nearby second-story balcony. Unbeknown to Franz, this doll was the creation of Dr. Coppelius, the curmudgeonly (or nasty, depending on the portrayal) town kook. One evening, after Franz and his gang mug Dr. Coppelius in the town square, the old geezer’s house key falls out of his pocket onto the ground. Even though the clang of the key hitting the ground could be heard in the next village, it doesn’t register with Franz, and he and his cohorts run off to create some mischief elsewhere. Swanilda and her friends return, find the key, and enter Dr. Coppelius’s house. Moments later, the weird old guy, who returned to the town square to find his lost key, sees that his front door is open. (Swanilda and her friends, though obviously smarter than Franz, weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer either.) Dr. Coppelius then enters the house to look for the trespassers, followed shortly thereafter by Franz, who has returned with a ladder to climb up the balcony to get a closer look at his emotionally-challenged (and motionally-challenged) doll. In Act II, Swanilda and her friends discover that weird Dr. Coppelius is weirder than they thought, and they then create mayhem with his lifelike puppets. Dr. Coppelius enters his workshop, chases the girls off, and then sees Franz, who has entered through the balcony window. He gets Franz drunk, and uses him as a source of life for his doll Coppelia, the one who Franz loves, except Dr. Coppelius doesn’t notice that Coppelia is now Swanilda in Coppelia’s costume and sitting in Coppelia’s chair. Must be something in the town water supply. Swanilda leads Dr. Coppelius to think that he’s brought Coppelia to life, then destroys him by showing him the lifeless real doll stripped to her underwear (who had somehow made her way back to that chair). Swanilda then runs off with Franz, who’s still somehow clueless. In the third Act, Dr. Coppelius, who’s no dummy, seeks restitution from the soon-to-be-married couple. After the town mayor (the Burgomaster) pays Dr. Coppelius for his damages, the geezer (Dr Coppelius, not the mayor) gives his blessing to Swanilda and Franz’s wedding (well, the mayor does too), and there’s a town celebration. The end. It’s as if Act I of Giselle had been converted into a romantic comedy, with Loys/Albrecht nowhere in sight and Giselle in love with the town dolt Hilarion. They drink a little (it was still time for the wine festival), marry, and, willy-nilly, live happily ever after.
Ms. Copeland is a strong, vivacious dancer with a commanding stage presence, and her Kitri-ish Swanilda was somewhat of a spitfire, which proved a good match for Mr. Cornejo’s powerful but empty-headed portrayal of her boyfriend. (I pick it up; I put it down. I pick it up; I put it down.) She danced everything full out and clean, and there were no technical errors to mar the performance (she tired with her last fouette in the Act III pas de deux, but I don’t consider that to be significant). That having been said, however, she appeared, as a friend described it afterward, to be at the edge of her technical prowess. The orchestra noticeably slowed to a snail’s pace toward the end of her Act I solo to allow her to complete a consecutive series of normally quicksilver steps, and at the end of the Act III pas de deux she substituted Italian fouettes (which she had just spent several performances doing as Gamzatti in the Pas d’Action from “La Bayadere”) for the first half of the more familiar series of consecutive fouettes. And except for her dancing in Act II, everything she danced she danced ‘hard’, without modulation. (Even her feet hit the floor hard – one could hear the repeated ‘thuds’ all the way to the back of the Dress Circle.)
But as critical as technical ability is, for me a role such as Swanilda requires a multi-faceted personality. Ms. Copeland’s smile lit up the stage -- but, like her choreographic execution, her characterization was essentially one-dimensional. She had only two stage faces: that big smile, and intense concentration when she began a phrase that required more than passing technical prowess, which always registered on her face as tension. Neither is abnormal or inappropriate for a dancer in what I believe may have been her first full length role with ABT in New York (although not her debut – she danced the role during ABT’s recent tour). But the portrayal is better when the facial expression and traits of character – in short, the acting -- is more varied.
As bright eyed and vivacious as Ms. Copeland was, my preference is for the same qualities that the ballet’s creators apparently were looking for. I found them in the other two performances by Ms. Lane and Ms. Murphy.
Early in my balletgoing career, it became apparent to me that if a ballerina is short and pretty, she’s not taken seriously by many critics (unless she’s successful in demanding ballerina roles such as Giselle or Cinderella or Juliet, which requires being cast in those roles in the first place). The usual dismissive description is that she is little more than a ‘soubrette’, and complaints of ‘she’s not substantial enough; can’t command the stage; doesn’t have the strength or the gravitas’ can be deafening. I bring this up because I’ve heard that said of Ms. Lane. It’s nonsense, and her Swanilda finally should put a stop to this.
Ms. Lane was by far the sweetest and most engaging of the Swanildas this weekend. By itself, these qualities can translate as bland. But Ms. Lane’s was the kind of sweetness that also was feisty (though not aggressive), and most importantly that has a heart. There wasn’t a moment when she wasn’t ‘real’. For example, she’s the only one of the three who showed a measure of compassion and regret to Dr. Coppelius while she was still in his studio. And when Dr. Coppelius came after the couple looking for restitution at the beginning of Act III, she, like the others, hid at first. But the expression on her face was guilt, and her subsequent beg for forgiveness was both apparent, and legitimately touching. All this took seconds, but they’re typical of the nuances she added to her characterization throughout, and that made her portrayal look complex, and made it sing.
She also danced with extraordinary delicacy and refined sensitivity, which has become Ms. Lane’s signature. (In this respect her only equals among principals and soloists in the company are Alina Cojocaru, Diana Vishneva, Hee Seo, and Ms. Kajiya.) While her technique in the bravura variations didn’t match Ms. Murphy’s (none could), she was rock-solid in her turns and balances (which always seems to come as a surprise because she looks so light, but at this point is nothing unusual). And I will likely never forget her feather-light developpes a la seconde toward the end of the ‘Ballade de L’Epi’ in Act I, which were as pure as those of the other Swanildas who executed the same steps, but which, as her alternating extended legs returned to the stage floor, were not just lowered slowly at the same tempo as each leg had been raised, but were held in position incrementally as each leg descended. As a result, the movement sequence looked like a series of extraordinarily-controlled millisecond-long freeze-frames. (Much like the hyphenated words in that last sentence ever-so-briefly slowed the sentence’s flow.) None of the other ballerinas – indeed, to my recollection, no ballerina I’ve ever seen in this role— has executed that step sequence that way. It was breathtaking.
There was another aspect of Ms. Lane’s performance that was breathtaking as well. In Act III, when Swanilda first emerges from the wings upstage right in her wedding dress (as opposed to the peasant outfit in which she was previously costumed), the entrance is usually simple and celebratory, but has no additional significance. When Ms. Lane appeared from the wings, the audience, at least in the orchestra where I was seated, very clearly and collectively gasped, as if they were no longer simply an audience in a theater, but guests at a wedding whose collective breaths were taken away upon their first view of the bride. This wasn’t because of the way Ms. Lane looks – it was the product of a calculated effort to register not just as celebratory, but as youthful, demure, and radiant.
Ms. Murphy’s characterization of Swanilda, necessarily, took a slightly different tack. Her expressiveness and acting prowess was every bit as fine as Ms. Lane’s, but it was qualitatively different in two respects: it was more amplified, as if she was, appropriately, projecting to the back of the theater, and it had the appearance of being the product of innate intelligence rather than of an innocent soul. Although I preferred Ms Lane’s approach, Ms. Murphy’s worked perfectly, and was appropriate for her.
Technically, Ms. Murphy was outstanding (but it wouldn’t have been Ms. Murphy otherwise). I’ve said this before, but one tends to forget how extraordinary a dancer Ms. Murphy is, because she’s extraordinary all the time. Her execution doesn’t look powerful as much as supremely confident. Both she and Ms. Lane, for example, danced the full complement of fouettes at the conclusion of the pas de deux in Act III. But where Ms. Lane tired at the final fouette (which, as with Ms. Copeland, I don't consider significant), Ms. Murphy’s were executed at twice the speed, and perfectly through to the end. And although there was little sense of effort in Ms. Lane’s performance, Ms. Murphy showed none at all. While she doesn't have Ms. Lane's delicacy and winsomeness, she draws an audience into her performances in other ways, like a magnet, yet never looks like she's showing off.
All three of the dancers portraying Franz executed the role essentially as one would expect – as not very bright boys: they played dumb (Mr. Matthews), dumber (Mr. Simkin), and dumbest (Mr. Cornejo). Mr. Matthews will grow into his role; for now, however, he exhibited less of a defined personality than the other two. But his partnering was excellent, his connection with Ms. Murphy appropriate, and his execution crisp and correct – although over time he’ll moderate his exuberance and finish his coupe-jete turns before he hits the wings. Except during the Act III pas de deux, Mr. Cornejo looked the strongest of the three. But the contrast between looking strong and stupid at the same time can be jarring, and when he finally had the opportunity to dance full out (in the Act III pas de deux), he became the premiere danseur he is, displaying his technique as if he were Prince Siegfried or Albrecht. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s exciting to watch and not inappropriate. But it took him out of character, which to me marred the overall performance.
Mr. Simkin’s Franz, however, was a surprise. He was the country bumpkin of the three. But what made Mr. Simkin’s performance was that he was a believable bumpkin, that he partnered Ms. Lane quite well (significantly improved from the last time I saw him partner her last year), and, most of all, that although his boundless technique was on full display in the Act III pas de deux, he didn’t appear to be showing off – he was just a particularly talented bumpkin. If this is a signal that Mr. Simkin has matured to the point where he has come to the realization that in many situations less is more, then this performance for him was a watershed.
Of the other roles in these three performances (and aside from Ms. Kajiya’s ‘Prayer’), Roman Zhurbin (at both evenings) and Alexei Agoudine (at the matinee) performed Dr. Coppelius with appropriate flair. Luciana Paris danced ‘Prayer’ on Saturday evening, and although she could not equal Ms. Kajiya, she danced well (particularly considering that this was her first appearance after an injury). In the ‘Dawn’ variation, Isabella Boylston (at the matinee) gave a more powerful portrayal (it was ‘high noon’ as opposed to ‘dawn’); Stella Abrera’s portrayal at Friday’s performance was impeccable; but Devon Teuscher’s on Saturday evening, while perhaps less technically perfect than Ms. Abrera, was more exuberant, the personification of the beginning of a good day. In the Mazurka and Czardas, each of the lead couples excelled: Christine Shevchenko, with Luis Ribagorda on Saturday matinee and Blaine Hoven on Saturday evening, and Ms. Teuscher and Alexandre Hammoudi on Friday evening. And as the ‘Lead Mazurka Lady’, Gemma Bond on Friday and Adrienne Schulte on Saturday matinee were appropriately festive, but Stephanie Williams on Saturday evening had the most vivacity (just a hair shy of being over the top). On Friday, David LaMarche’s conducting was too slow and the orchestra sounded under-rehearsed. But things picked up in pace and sound quality under the batons of Ormsby Williams and Charles Barker on Saturday afternoon and evening respectively.
Finally, a brief word about this production. In New York, balletgoers are blessed with two productions: one choreographed by George Balanchine for New York City Ballet, and ABT’s version, which is based on the Saint-Leon original, and was most recently staged by the late Frederic Franklin. They’re similar, of course, but except for the Act III ‘War and Discord’ dance, which I dislike, I prefer the NYCB version. But regardless of which version is choreographically ‘better’, the ABT production looks tired. I like the lighting and the spaciousness of Act II, but the set looks dated. This may be a good thing (there’s nothing to look at except the dancers), but a new, more vibrant production would be welcome.