Coppélia at the ABT

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In Memoriam.

ABT’s production of “Coppélia” seen last week was adequate, but not great. I know the ballet well because of my long and deep friendship with Ivan Nagy, “danseur noble” who defected from Hungary in 1965 and died unexpectedly three months ago. He was one of the great romantic partners in the 1960s and ’70s, much sought after by the great ballerinas of that era: Margot Fonteyn, Natalia Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland, to name a few. He had physical beauty, sophisticated intelligence, and great style and elegance.

Ivan and his ballerina wife Marilyn Burr worked with the New Orleans Ballet over a period of years, originally as guest stars and later as Artistic Directors. I saw them set “Coppelia” here, and the hours I spent at rehearsals made me all too aware of the lacks in ABT’s current production. I am not implying that our small local company could compete in any way with the extraordinary high quality of dance at American Ballet Theatre. I am saying that this particular production was not all it could have been.

The sets and costumes were perfectly designed as colorful confections necessary to enhance the rather flimsy story. The mad Dr. Coppelius has fallen in love with his life-size doll Coppélia, as has Franz, a village lad who also loves Swanilda, a village lass. This situation presents ceaseless opportunities to yuck it up, taking into account that what was funny in 1870 when the ballet was mounted is not necessarily funny today. The Léo Delibes score is, however, sublime; it is perfect music, although the tempo was off the night I attended. Small matter.

Ivan’s direction would have greatly improved the Czardas and the Mazurka, highlights of brio and machismo. The former is a Hungarian folk dance and the latter a Polish folk dance, very similar with slight rhythmic variation, but lots of boot stamping and gender profiling. (The women are all big flirts and the men are studs.) In both events, the boys danced much like the girls and lacked the fire that Ivan had drilled into our local dancers.

The crowd scenes should have been more interesting. Ivan coached the villagers to interact subtly while watching Swanilda and Franz perform their variations. He cautioned, “Do not just stand there and let audience know you are dying to get back to your tongue sandvich in dressing room.”

The role of Franz had been awarded to Sascha Radetsky, probably as a parting gift, its being his farewell performance at ABT. Although his “tours en l’air” and lifts were competent, they only reinforced the fact that he is a mature man and not the boyish youth that Franz should be. Certainly, we all know that no mature man could simultaneously love two different women; he was not a sympathetic figure.

Xiomara Reyes as Swanilda was strong and steady as she whipped out her “fouettée” turns; but she lacked drama and humor. She was neither frisky nor mischievous, qualities needed to maximize this 19th century Three Act joke.

What a good director can do is make Coppelia a delightful evening of dance. What I saw was kind of boring.
It made me long for my dear departed friend.

Walda Besthoff

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