Coppélia and the Value of the Tutu Ballet

Written by Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Jonathan Porretta
and Kaori Nakamura as Franz and Swanilda in
PNB’s production of the comic ballet 
Coppélia,
choreographed by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine
© The George Balanchine Trust (after Marius Petipa). 
Photo © Angela Sterling
In Seattle’s often experimental dance scene, it could be easy to dismiss Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Coppélia, which opened at McCaw Hall June 1, 2012, as just another tutu ballet. Certainly, all the elements are there: a quaint love story, spectacular pas de deux partnering, and plenty of old-fashioned ballet pantomime.

While the magic, glitz, and copious tulle of the production make it popular among younger audience members, the adults may find themselves wanting something more. After all, art is meant to be thought-provoking and challenging, right?

But one shouldn’t be too quick to judge this classic.

Coppélia delivers for what it is––the romantic comedy of ballets that’s accessible for a wide audience, especially for those whose palate favors more classical works. Who wouldn’t want to see those 24 adorable PNB students in Act III bourrée-ing across the stage?

Coppélia takes place in Galicia, an Eastern European village, brought to life through Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s lush landscape. Under a stage with hanging wisteria and sets that depict a village square with quaint teapot-like houses, lusty peasants dance the Hungarian czardas.

The audience meets the coquettish Swanilda (portrayed by Kaori Nakamura on opening night) and her sweetheart, Franz (Jonathan Porretta) a dashing but fickle lad who also has eyes for the beautiful Coppélia (Angelica Generosa), whom he sees day-in and day-out reading her book on a balcony. Little does Franz know that she is actually a lifelike masterpiece created by the eccentric mechanical doll maker Dr. Coppélius (retired PNB principal, Jeffrey Stanton).

Some longtime PNB fans no doubt got a kick out of watching Stanton, who often danced the Prince Charming role, now steal the show as an old weirdo. As Dr. Coppélius attempts to make Coppélia a real girl later on in the show, the audience can’t help but laugh at his antics while he marvels at each tiny progression, even the blinking of Coppélia’s eyelashes.

While there’s nothing new about Coppélia, any dance fan can appreciate where dance came from, how it’s evolved, and where it’s going. And, from a historian’s point of view, Coppélia represents an important part of dance heritage. Not only is it considered one of the great ballets of the 19th century, but it marked the passing of ballet supremacy from France to Russia.  

Coppélia was first choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in Parisin 1870 and later restaged by Marius Petipa in St. Petersburg and Enrico Cecchetti separately in the late 1800s. This current version at PNB was later staged by Aleksandra Danilova and George Balanchine, based on their memories of dancing in the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in Russia.

With coiffed hair, false eyelashes, and gypsy skirts that matched her leotards, “[Danilova] was very much the flirt, even in her 80s,” said PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal in his director’s note, recalling his days at New York City Ballet, where Danilova was a teacher.

Danilova, and the spirit of the great classical ballerina, reside in Coppélia. In some of these older productions, ballerinas are given an opportunity to shine based on acting and performance quality. This was certainly the case for Nakamura, whose feisty and spirited dancing helped elicit a standing ovation. Her exquisite sense of musicality contributed to her overall expressiveness, not only on her face, but in her pointe work––razor sharp and speedy when it needed to be, and reveling in luxuriousness and resistance at other times.  

Poretta, who has the rare and natural ability to charm the audience as much as his female counterpart, was suited to be Nakamura’s partner––tackling both the comedic humor, as well as the jumps and turns.  

WhileCoppélia may not represent where the dance world is going, it certainly represents where it’s come from––even for modern dance, whose mother (Isadora Duncan) was only 7 years old when Coppélia was first choreographed. From this historical and anthropological perspective, one can appreciate this period piece, even if it is “just another tutu ballet.”

Coppélia runs June 1–10 at McCaw Hall. To purchase tickets, go to http://www.pnb.org/ or call 206-441-2424.