Ballet Nacional de Cuba

Alicia Alonso's "Coppélia"

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

October 12, 2001
By Mary Ellen Hunt

Few companies in the world can render the great classic ballets as well as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and last Friday's performance of Alicia Alonso's version of the storybook ballet, Coppélia demonstrated the sunny charm and style that is the hallmark of this company. The only glaring omission in the evening was the absence of a live orchestra, as once again the Bay Area saw them presented with taped music.

The opening night cast was led by Lorna Feijoó and Joel Carreño, both of whom have famous siblings who dance in major American companies. Feijoó was perfectly cast as the mischievous soubrette, Swanhilda, and the young Carreño as Franz showed a huge technique and a polish beyond his years. From Feijoó's first long solo (danced to the famous waltz by Léo Delibes), she was utterly charming, even within precise and secure work. Barely ten minutes into the ballet she turned out a set of rock solid fouettés Italiénne that only hinted at the fun ahead.

All of these dancers have been obviously carefully coached, particularly for the leads. It might come as a surprise to realize that so much of this ballet is conveyed in mime and that there is less actual dancing than, say, in a typical Swan Lake. Surprising because the Cuban company executes the long miming passages so clearly and convincingly that it seems less like a series of symbolic gestures and more like a natural extension of the ballet, which indeed it is. Carreño was boyishly exuberant and more than half his appeal came from his very broad and clear acting and the saucy, yet sweet relationship between him and Feijoó.

Finely-acted performances were not confined to the leads however, and almost every one of the dancers showed a clear understanding of their characters and the styles that they meant to portray (there was a nice difference between the men's attack and the women's softness in the port de bras of the czardas, for instance). There were delightfully funny details from the company throughout the ballet, most notably, from Dr. Coppelius, danced by Félix Rodriguez, whose broad comedic sense and sincerity turned what is normally regarded as a cranky, old guy into a sympathetic, lonely character.

In the end, though, the ballet is carried by the attractiveness and charisma of the leads and Feijoó and Carreño delivered it all. In the first act's Wheat Pas de Deux, Feijoó's precise glissades to fifth position were immaculate and her six o'clock arabesque penchées were immediate and solid. Then, just as one began to admire the strength of her technique, a quick flirtatious glance over her shoulder at Carreño would remind you that dance is all about telling a whole story and that technique is just the vehicle for this. By the time they reached the coda, there were cheers from the audience as Feijoó strode her way through thirty or so passés relevés with complete assurance and Carreño executed one of those beautifully slow, creamy multiple pirouettes that the Cuban men are so famous for.

The second act is largely told through mime, although it is a tour de force for Swanhilda, who hardly stops dancing from the time Coppelius "animates" her until the curtain comes down. Once again, the dancers show that they are unafraid to play broad comedy and turn what can be an interminably long series of pantomimes into a set of genuinely funny perfectly timed gems. Even the dancers playing the dolls invested such conviction into their roles that you found yourself staring very closely to see if they would betray any breaks in character, which they didn't. One might have detected, however, that a few of the dolls carefully positioned themselves so that they would be able to watch Feijoó and Rodriguez out of the corners of their eyes, but who wouldn't? Feijoó was completely fascinating to watch and her mobile and articulate footwork was even more apparent in this act than the first. Her Swanhilda was a headstrong girl, and Feijoó seemed to embody the quality, punctuating a variation with a double pirouette that she nailed to a finish by force of will, despite being off balance.

The final act, the traditional wedding act that closes so many classical ballets, was an exciting close to the ballet, although Dawn and Prayer (Hayna Gutiérrez and Ivis Díaz) were more powerful than delicate, and their choreography was a little less than traditional. Díaz, who is still a coryphée, had the right quiet quality for Prayer. I found the flower that she carried the entire time to be slightly distracting, but there was no mistaking her deep penchées and easy extensions, though her lines would have looked even longer with a slightly more "shaped" foot at the end of her arabesques.

In the Wedding Pas de Deux, Carreño showed a graceful presence, presenting Feijoó beautifully and matching her lines well. His variation was not perfectly clean, but his enthusiasm made any insecurity forgivable. Then too, he had the same never-give-up spirit as Feijoó and even when a small piece of technique would falter, he hung on by willpower and made the variation work for him. Feijoó herself only built on the excitement she had generated already, executing a fiendish series of hops on pointe with complete ease and whipping the audience to a frenzy with a simple diagonal of ballonnés relevés. By the time they reached the coda of turns, Feijoó was tossing off double fouetté turns and Carreño triple grands pirouettes in seconde and I found myself wishing we could start the night all over again and watch it one more time.


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Edited by Marie.

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