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San Francisco Ballet's Coppélia: Reviving a Masterpiece

by Joanna G. Harris
March 21, 2016
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-5600
Joanna G. Harris Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
Coppélia has a long history as a ballet and an even longer history as variations of the E.T.A. Hoffman story, “The Sandman.”

The ballet was first produced in 1870 at the Paris Opera with choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon and music by Léo Delibes. Subsequent performances with choreography by Marius Petipa (revised by Cecchetti) took place in St. Petersburg in 1884 and then in 1894. The San Francisco Ballet premiere was in 1939. The New York City Ballet produced it in 1974.

In the uncanny (weird, unhealthy…see Freud) story presented by San Francisco Ballet with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, March 8-13, 2016 at the San Francisco Opera House, the inventor (in this case the doll-maker) Dr. Coppelius wants to bring Coppélia (the doll, not the heroine of the ballet) to life. To do that, he needs a human sacrifice. With a magic spell, he will take Franz's spirit and transfer it to Coppélia. The original story is long and complex. It deals with the main character’s obsession with eyes, an obsession that eventually causes his doom. The ballet’s plot is more benign. Swanilda, the folk heroine of the ballet, is posing as the doll (who has intrigued Franz) she (the doll) is supposably brought to life with Franz’s life-force, which is an act consummated by love and trickery. The old story, a folktale, as well as Hoffman’s, is the narration of the second act, a complex challenge to dramatic dancing. Act I of the ballet, as performed in San Francisco and in Balanchine’s’ version, earlier in New York, consists of studies in folk dance forms popular in Poland. After all, Chopin was a master of the mazurka.

Act III continues the folk tradition but adds a "dance of the hours," including episodes of Dawn, Prayer, the Spinner (work), Jesterettes (children), Discord and War (danced by men and women) and of course, the grand pas de deux as celebration of the marriage of Franz and Swanilda. All this coincides with the "celebration of bells."

Some critics note that the town is getting a new clock and moving into modern times and the celebration moved away from medieval beliefs. Critics are good at doing research and posing theories.

All this aside, the dancing in Coppélia as performed in San Francisco this season, especially by Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro was outstanding. Zahorian was skilled in Act II by the gradual transition from doll to dancing girl and her dramatic role in fooling Dr. Coppelius and awakening Franz from his drunken sleep.

Rebecca Rhodes as "Dawn," Jahna Frantziskonis as "Prayer," Lauren Stongin as "Spinner" and the four "Jesterettes" (young ballet students) were all very effective in their roles. Rubén Martin Cintas provided the disabled humor of Dr. Coppelius. Zahorian and Domitro’s final pas de deux was gorgeous and brought the complex work to a fine close. Ming Luke conducted the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra with gusto.
Pascal Molat as Dr. Coppelius and Frances Chung as Coppelia.

Pascal Molat as Dr. Coppelius and Frances Chung as Coppelia.

Photo © & courtesy of Erik Tomasson

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