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New York City Ballet

'Coppelia'

by Kate Snedeker

February 25 and 27, 2003 --New York State Theater

For NYCB, the happy ending came in the return of George Balanchine’s delightful "Coppelia" during the last week of the 2003 Winter Season. Leo Delibes’s sprightly music and Rouben Ter Arutunian’s brightly colored sets andcostumes seemed to energize the largely new cast, resulting in a number of sparkling debuts.

In the Act Two of "Coppelia," Swanilda nearly despairs of ever waking her fiancé Frantz from his alcohol induced slumber, and escaping from Dr. Coppelius’ surreal workshop. In the end, she succeeds and they are married in a joyful celebration. At times, it seemed like New York City Ballet was also trapped in a surreal nightmare, with three male principals suffering season-ending injuries, two during performances.

Robert LaFosse, recently named a guest artist, returned to reprise his role as Dr. Coppelius, performing with both casts. As Dr. Coppelius, LaFosse took a light, almost comedic approach, appropriate for Balanchine’s more lighthearted version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s dark original story. LaFosse’s Dr. Coppelius was a batty old inventor who elicited chuckles by turning corners with precision, and was bright enough to create a doll such as Coppelia, but not smart enough to outwit the none to smart young lovers who end up in his workshop. Such a comedic approach can be pushed too far, but LaFosse’s experience allowed him to infuse the role with just the right amount of humor. Importantly, LaFosse’s mime was excellent, conveying the story without being too obvious.

On Tuesday, Benjamin Millepied made a wonderful debut as Frantz opposite Yvonne Borree, the only dancer returning in a principal role, as Swanilda. Two days later, Jenifer Ringer and Charles Askegard, both new in the roles, made equally as enjoyable, though differently flavored debuts.

Borree -- who can often seem fragile onstage -- was anything but, as Swanilda, and preojected an impish zest. Her dancing is not overly powerful, but she was pleasantly quick and precise, skittering around the stage as she wreaked havoc in Coppelius’s workshop. This mischievous energy was enough to carry her through the technically challenging sections of the choreography.

Ringer, a taller dancer, had more physical power as Swanilda, using her whole body and every step to illustrate the emotion. Her Swanilda was an energetic, self-possessed girl.

Millepied was a very fresh Frantz, with light, soaring, quick dancing and shorter, slender build that made him a good match for Borree. His Frantz had a youthful bounce and carefree attitude, and though blinded by his adoration for Coppelia, not as simpleminded as often portrayed. His swagger and boldness belied a more intelligent young man, enjoying the spring of his life and his last days of freedom.

Charles Askegard was equally delightful in his debut, though his Frantz was more simpleminded, an overgrown kid, out to enjoy life as it happened. With his very tall build, one does not get an impression of great height in Askegard’s jumps, though they are quite high, but his dancing is smooth and crisp nonetheless.

The brief dances by Swanilda’s Friends in the first act, were pleasantly danced, but sorely needed more rehearsal time to smooth out glaring problems in timing, especially in the series of brief duets. The rollicking mazurka, however, was danced with an infectious energy and welcome precision, the men especially giving it their all in the high kicks and emphatic stomping, and the women matching their enthusiasm. There are very few folk/character dances in NYCB’s repertory, and the dancers seemed to be relishing the opportunity to kick up their heels. With such an enthusiastic performance, it was disappointing that more time could not have been taking to properly fit the male dancer’s boots, as several dancer’s boots slipped down at each performance.

In the second act, Ter Arutunian’s set reaches in from the full dimensions of the stage, giving Coppelius’ workshop a cozy, overgrown dollhouse-like feeling. While the shorter Borree and Millepied looked proportionate in the set, Ringer and especially Askegard seemed outsized, a point accented by Askegard’s hunched entry through the workshop window.

After a rather scattered first act, the female corps recovered with a comically delightful Act 2. They elicited many laughs with their mock fright in discovering Coppelia and their playful gamboling with the Automatons. Though well-acted by the four male apprentices, especially Austin Laurent as the high splitting Acrobat, the Automatons are the weakest part of Balanchine’s production. Tied to one spot for the most part and rather unexciting in action and costuming, they do little to arouse wonder or bring to life the magic of the workshop.

Both Millepied and Askegard need more work in the mime sequences, though the differences in approach were often interesting. When lured to drink with Coppelius, Askegard was clearly drinking something powerful and foul tasting, while Millepied’s drink was tastier, thrown back in a single, macho gulp. Millepied was more realistic as a wobbly kneed, slowly collapsing drunk, while Askegard’s flat-out backwards faint was much more dramatic.

With Frantz out cold, the two Swanildas showed off their talents. Borree chose to be dramatic in the Spanish solo, a central European peasant girl doing her impassioned, but uninformed impression of a Spanish dance. She handled the situation with aplomb when the Spanish headdress got stuck in her hair, managing to untangle it, and get through the Scottish dance despite the hastily-wrapped tartan sash coming undone and dangling around her feet.

Ringer was fresh, and straight forward in the brief solos, showing off her sparkling technique, clearly enjoying the challenge and cheek in the dancing. She seemed to be having as much fun running around, causing chaos in the workshop, as the audience had watching her giving Dr. Coppelius fits. Ringer was quite energetic in jostling the various automatons, and Laurent and Allen Pfeiffer deserve a special mention for successfully maintaining such uncomfortable looking “toppled-over” positions.

The third act opens with a series of four solos, accompanied by the impeccably rehearsed and absolutely charming young dancers from the School of the American Ballet. Amanda Edge and Lindy Mandradjieff both debuted in the Dedication of the Bells, dancing with smoothness and spark.

On Tuesday, Abi Stafford, as Dawn, appeared slightly tentative, and despite a dazzling series of turns, got behind, resulting in a painful pause between the end of the music and her departure from the stage. Sarah Ricard, on Thursday, didn’t have Stafford’s attack, but imbued the role with a crisp precision. Both Dana Hanson, and Dena Abergel (in debuts) were simply wonderful in the moving Prayer solo. Hanson, with her long, slender body seemed to float across the stage, and both women blended detail with flow, as seen in the careful extension of each hand to the awaiting young girls.

Pascale Van Kipnis, and in her debut, Carrie Lee Riggins, both had a bit of trouble with the Spinner’s fast turns, but more than compensated in speed and the difficult hops on point. Van Kipnis covered more distance in the hops, but Riggins was equally as secure.

Jessica Flynn and Ashley Laracey, who recently were promoted to the corps, Sterling Hyltin and Georgina Pazcoguin, were fresh and energetic as the jingle bell-clad jesterettes, especially in the tricky series of syncopated hops.

The Discord and War section was well danced on both nights, with the leaping legions of spear waving warriors and warrioresses. The high leaping Adam Hendrickson partnered Aesha Ash in her debut on Tuesday night, both powerful and sharp in their movements. Seth Orza was excellent in his debut, along with Ellen Bar on Thursday, but the costume disrupted his normally elegant long lines. The corps danced with the same enthusiastic energy that they had in the first act mazurka, giving the dance a triumphant, if not ominous feeling.

Both lead couples were stellar in grand Peace Pas de Deux. Millepied and Borree were pleasant, if not spectacular with a crisp, quick entrance up to the spectacular shoulder lifts. Borree had a slight slip in one of her solos variations, but danced with conviction and quickness that matched Millepied’s soaring performance. It was not one of Millepied’s stronger performances technically, but his light, airy ballon and fast pirouettes and tours are always a delight to watch. Of particular note was series of double tours with a quick snap to second position after landing.

On Thursday, Ringer and Askegard danced an elegant, triumphant Peace Pas de Deux. Askegard chose to use slightly different variations than Millepied, and though he was uncharacteristically wobbly in one tour-pirouette sequence, he recovered nicely in the end. Ringer sparkled in her solos, dancing with immense power and an aura of sheer delight. She seemed entirely secure with Askegard, leaping with complete abandon into his arms for Balanchine’s unusual upside down variation on the swan dive. Ringer’s energy and Askegard’s noble partnering made for a wonderful, passionate pas de deux, exhilarating to watch!

All that starts well, ends well, and "Coppelia" brought a lighthearted, optimistic end to what had, at times, been a gloomy seeming season.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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