writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

A Salute to Frederic Franklin, and a Charming Coppélia

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 21, 2004

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter
published June 22, 2004

Unlike the other more weighty or and/or melodramatic full-evening narrative ballets that ABT has been performing at the Met this season, Coppélia relies on storybook charm and giddy high spirits. Frederic Franklin's 1997 staging is modest, engaging and unpretentious, full of old-world sweetness—the opposite of the kind of bloated spectacle that is designed to suit a house as cavernous as the Met. In some ways, it is overly modest and looks underpopulated, but it radiates sincerity and affection for its Hoffmann-inspired tale of deluded infatuation.

It is also endearingly old-fashioned in its reliance on mime, with the characters often incorporating mimed "conversation" into their dancing. The heroine Swanilda's entrance is more a mime solo than a dance solo, as she announces her situation—"my fickle boyfriend stands around blowing kisses at that dull girl up on the balcony" and growing increasingly impatient as she tries to communicate with the unresponsive rival—through clear, wonderfully musical mime, interspersing some buoyant, simple dance steps to sweeten the delivery.

There is nothing otherworldly about Swanilda; she is pragmatic and proactive, spirited and self-assured. The role does not tap a deep emotional range; it requires the ballerina to be pert, saucy, at times temperamental, but it does not involve profound passions. Ashley Tuttle, a scrupulously clear, at times overly proper dancer, seems more naturally suited to Swanilda than to heroines whose adventures bring them in contact with the supernatural. She took a suitably petulant, no-nonsense stance with Franz in Act One, guarding her affections until she was sure he had proven himself worthy of them.

As Franz, Angel Corella is at his most boyish and endearing—you just know she cannot stay mad at him to long. He's also so forthright as he mimes his dilemma — one beautiful girl he's smitten with over here, another one over there—that the goofy wrong-headedness of his attraction to Coppelia makes him even more endearing. In this production, Franz joins heartily in the Mazurka, joining up with a conveniently available partner (Karin Ellis-Wentz) who appears n the scene.

Dr. Coppelius, as portrayed by Victor Barbee, is certainly an eccentric, but not the misguided would-be visionary that the character can sometimes seem. He has little use for the outside world, finding comfort only in his odd, musty little domain of mechanical creatures, but he doesn't seem emotionally invested in the idea of Coppelia becoming a living, breathing girl. When Franz's intrusion into his shop offers the convenient opportunity to try out the magic spells that could bring her to life, he doesn't seem to have been yearning for this moment. It's just an experiment that intrigues him.

Tuttle was wonderfully disciplined in Act Two when she impersonated the doll, maintaining a perfect poker face but always letting you know she was mentally one step ahead of Coppelius. Her tough, no-nonsense veneer melted away once she donned Patricia Zipprodt's pale pink spun-sugar wedding dress in Act Three, and Tuttle poured all her purity and refined musicality into the harmonious pas de deux which lets you know that this couple certainly belongs together. Corella, at his vibrant, airborne best, was exuberant in his solos.

The third act keeps the same setting as the first, not adding any festive touches to indicate that it is a day of celebration. The only villagers in attendance are the mazurka couples (who now dance a czardas), still dressed the same. Fortunately, there are a dozen delightful young girls in pale green tutus who dance a sprightly Waltz of the Hours. Franklin keeps the spotlight fully on them-there is no soloist threading through as there is in the NYCB production. Enchantingly, they pass through a circle formation during which they represent the hours, as on the face of a clock. This children's dance does not have the "wow" effect of Balanchine's 24 little adorables in pink, who stay onstage to frame the ensuing solos, but it is fresh and charming.

The two allegorical solos received deluxe casting at this occasion, being performed by the previous week's two Swan Lake debutantes. Michele Wiles cleaved through space with gracious amplitude and a new pliancy as Dawn, and Veronika Part drew attention to her gorgeously arched feet as she articulated the meditative benediction of the Prayer solo with eloquent devotion.

A few features of this production are awkwardly managed or out of place. The presence of the Coppelia doll, sitting at her window alongside Coppelius in Act Three surveying the festivities below, seems strange. Clearly, she has not been reduced to a limp, undressed wreck like her counterpart at NYCB, whom Coppelius mournfully drags out into the town square to illustrate what has been done to him. This doll has been salvaged, put back in her frilly dress. Also, the finding of the key that Coppelius drops during his scuffle with Franz and his fellow ruffians does not occur at the perfectly-chosen moment in the music that the NYCB version uses, one which practically announces "aha!" When one of Coppelia's friends notices it, the stage has begun to darken, and the moment seems badly timed in dramatic terms.

Since the evening was a warm and well-deserved 90th-birthday salute to Franklin, there was another, surprising bit of deluxe casting: Julie Kent, returning to the stage after maternity leave) portrayed the doll to whom Franz blows his kisses. She joined in the bows, which featured a reprise of the celebratory finale, culminating with the dapper, ageless Franklin striding downstage center, greeted by cheers. Pink and white balloons rained down, and Kevin McKenzie placed a large basket of flowers at Franklin's feet. Onstage and in the audience, there was heartfelt affection for this joyful, eternally elegant dancer who continues to inspire and nourish the art of ballet so generously.

Photo:  Ashley Tuttle and Victor Barbee in Coppelia. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 24
June 28, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter


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