Monday, March 21, 2011

Ballet 101—Coppélia

What do you see
You people gazing at me
You see a doll on a music box
That’s wound by a key
How can you tell
I'm under a spell
I'm waiting for love's first kiss
You cannot see
How much I long to be free
Turning around on this music box
That’s wound by a key...

From the automatons of Daedalus in Greek mythology to Collodi’s Le avventure di Pinocchio to April in the “I Was Made to Love You” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, authors and artists have been fascinated with the idea of animating the inanimate. The story of Coppélia is one of the most popular incarnations of this idea. Based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (1816) with music by Léo Delibes, Coppélia is the story of a mysterious inventor, Coppélius, the life-like doll he creates, a young buck, Frantz, and the girl he loves, Swanilda. [Side note: What is with these ballet names? French being arguably one of the most beautiful languages in the world, second only to Italian and maybe Russian, you would think that classical ballet could come up with better names for its heroines than Swanilda, Giselle, and Odette, no?]

If you are a close follower of this blog, you may be thinking, didn’t she say she couldn’t attend this ballet when she was raving about Giselle? And you would be right. I was extremely disappointed that visiting my family in Paris would mean missing one of the few story ballets that the San Francisco Ballet produces each year. But then the gods decided to smile on me and it turned out that Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris was putting on the very same ballet at the same time.

Or, sort of.

While Coppélia is generally considered one of the most comic ballets, Patrice Bart’s take on the story is much darker than usual. He abandons much of the original choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon and changes the story radically, choosing instead to emphasize the role of Coppélius as seducer of Swanilda and rival of Frantz, which leads to some unique and interesting choreography for the inventor (danced splendidly by étoile Benjamin Pech) but leaves Swanilda (here played by première danseuse Mélanie Hurel) pretty much out in the cold. It seemed so deliberate (with all her best moves coming between obvious applause points) that I actually wondered what was going on at the École de Danse in 1996.

More importantly, Bart pretty much abandons the idea of the doll, Coppélia, that Frantz falls in love with (much to the dismay of Swanilda). So, while danced extremely well, and the orchestra was in fine form, I left a bit disappointed because I thought the doll was sort of the point of the whole thing.

Or maybe I just have too-fond memories of endless viewings of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the “Doll in the Music Box” number...


Stasia said...

Wow. Wish I could've seen this. Coppelia sans doll (more or less)? That's one I haven't heard before. Happy Monday!

Sylvie said...

Well, there are still other dolls in the basement and she imitates an idealized Coppélia found in a book, but it doesn't really make sense without the whole initial doll/daughter in the window confusion.