There are ballets out there that everyone knows—chestnuts, like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, etc.. Then there are the ones that aren't so well known. As a more-than-casual (but not hard-core) ballet follower, Coppélia falls into the latter category for me. I imagine these must be the toughest to sell for ballet houses.
PNB's Coppélia, which runs through Sunday, June 13, is the first full-fledged production the ballet company has undertaken (building sets, designing costumes) in seven years—the last being Swan Lake, when PNB moved into McCaw Hall. It also has a special place in artistic director Peter Boal's heart, since it was the ballet that inspired him to become a dancer when he saw it with his parents as a child.
Here is the basic plot: Young lovers live in the same village as a mysterious doll maker, whose prize creation, the beautiful (and the ballet's namesake), Coppélia, sits in a balcony of the doll maker's workshop overlooking the town square. The doll captures the heart of the young man. Jealousy and hilarity of the pantomiming ballet variety ensues and eventually everyone lives happily ever after (after many, many, many opportunities to express themselves through vignettes of dance). In the performance I saw last Saturday night, Boal played the role of the doll maker, Dr. Coppelius. He was grand and knowing what this ballet means to him--made watching his performance fun.
The ballet is touted as one of the best comedic ballets ever written, but to me, "comic ballet" conjures up painful, laborious pantomiming scenes. Maybe that knocked 'em dead in 1870, but today's audiences want a little more.
Fortunately there was plenty more, and here's why it's worth seeing:
(Now, mind you, I am not an arts critic. But I always look at something through the "Why should this matter to me?" lens when I write about it, and I am a big believer that most people want that answer, too.)
1) The score, composed by Léo Delibes. He's one of those composers whose name recognition to the masses may be low, but whose songs most people have heard before in commercial jingles, Tom and Jerry cartoons and other pop culture applications. You'll know the tune when you hear it.
2) The sets—From the opening scene of the town square with teapot-shaped houses to the gigantic bells that hang from the rafters in Act 3, the set crew, led by designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, have outdone themselves again.
3) The Third Act: Some call this a "throwaway" act, since the plot points are really mostly wrapped up in the second act, but the ooh-and-ah performances are worth the wait through two intermissions (tip: put a drink order in during the first intermission so you can pick it up without waiting in line during the second intermission). Watching the parade of glorious Roberta Guidi di Bagno-designed costumes, from trojan warriors to butterfly dresses, was like taking in the latest Sex in the City movie--what outfits are they going to trot out next? And the hard work of ballet master Otto Neubert and his team, who runs the PNB kids' school, has never been more evident to me than in the third act, when a couple dozen pink tutu-ed tween ladies seriously danced their hearts out on stage. Maybe it's because I'm a mom and I know what serious opportunities like this means to kids, but they were a sight to see. If I were a little girl or boy, this is the ballet that would make me want to become a dancer, too.