Coppelia at the ABT

American Ballet Theatre
June 17, 2011

Coppelia at the ABT tonight was given a fun-filled performance thanks to the high-flying, tiny dynamo team of Natalia Osipova and Danil Simkin. The ABT's production of Coppelia is by Freddie Franklin, who danced this ballet often in the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. I last saw Vikharev reconstruction of Coppelia in the Bolshoi in HD transmission a few weeks ago, and I've also seen the NYCB version by Alexandra Danilova and Balanchine. It's remarkable how little these versions differ, from the choreography to the mime to the stage business. It's obvious that the different versions are based on the same notations, and in this case, the ballet seems to have been remarkably well-preserved. It's not really my favorite ballet, but it is fun, and Delibes' score is lovely.

The ABT's version is nonetheless a more intimate, small-scale ballet than the version I saw in the Bolshoi HD transmission. Part of this is necessity -- the ABT is a smaller company. The other is the different accents the companies put on the ballet -- the Bolshoi performance predictably was stronger in the character dancing sequences and corps de ballet work. It was slightly weaker on the comedy bits than the ABT. The ABT's Dr. Coppelius is more of a weirdo than the Bolshoi's harmless eccentric, and the antics of Swanilda and her friends are more obnoxious. The plus side to the ABT's approach is that the leading roles of Swanilda and Franz get more focus -- they never get lost in the crowd. And when the Swanilda is Natalia Osipova and the Franz is Danil Simkin, that's a pretty amazing night of dancing.

Natalia Osipova's virtues as a ballerina are by now well-known -- her extraordinary elevation and ballon, her ability to seem feather-light and athletic at the same time, her great turning abilities, her naturally bubbly stage presence. Swanilda is just about the perfect role for her -- she's equally at ease leaping across the stage in her variations, or hamming it up in Act Two, when Swanilda impersonates a doll. And it's not a tutu ballet, so Osipova's one weakness, lack of a traditionally beautiful classical line, is not an issue at all. Part of the fascination became how a dancer as relentlessly dynamic as Osipova could all of a sudden stiffen into a believable doll. But Osipova is a natural showoff, and she nailed the doll impersonation. Her body froze in stiff angular positions and a creepy smile. She used her natural flexibility to flop her torso dramatically up and down, like a rag doll. She lessened her turn out and flexed her feet in such a way to look less ballerina and more doll. Act One and Three showed the Osipova who has become familiar all over the world -- the high-kicking, flying phenom. Act Two showed that Osipova isn't a circus act -- she's also a charming stage actress. She made Swanilda a mean girl, who took pleasure in not only fooling Dr. Coppelius, but tormenting him.

Danil Simkin is physically so slight and boyish looking that Franz's immaturity as a character became very believable. One worries for the Swanilda/Franz nuptuals -- these two kids seem way too immature to be married. Simkin's also a great jumper and has the same showboating style as Osipova. One of Act One's most charming moves is Franz leaping offstage exactly to the beat of Delibes' chord. Simkin put a spin on this famous jump by leaping over the stage bench. But as a partner for Osipova, he has some work to do. In their Act Three pas de deux, his hand often shook, and he looked shaky as well on the lifts. In most productions, Swanilda ends the pas de deux's coda by leaping in a big fishdive into Franz's arms. Osipova, who I've seen absolutely hurl herself across the stage into a partner's arms, skipped this fishdive and instead the coda ended with a rather timid lift. I don't know if Simkin will ever have the gravitas for the more princely roles, but in this kind of demi-charactere role he's maybe the best the ABT has.

I was a little disappointed with the quality of performance from the rest of the performers. Roman Zhurbin was fantastic in the mime role of Dr. Coppelius, really a very strange fellow, and he kept up with Osipova's frenetic doll hijinks very well. The Dance of the Hours brought the young girls of the JKO School, and they were cute. But Simone Messmer was surprisingly blah as Dawn. She rushed through her solo with brisk, brittle, unpoetic efficiency. Hee Seo, whom I usually look forward to seeing, was disappointing as Prayer. Her leg shook whenever she tried to raise it in arabesque or developpe, and the wobbles detracted from the line of this dancer's gorgeously tapered legs and arched feet.

The most disappointing was the corps de ballet, that looked so energized just this Tuesday in Bright Stream. Tonight, the bad old ABT corps habits were back -- the line formations that aren't straight, the lack of coordination in movements, the dissimilar port de bras, the legs that aren't held at the same height, the heavy, leaden, low-energy dancing. The corps girls don't even bother to end a musical phrase at the same time -- often, one girl's leg will fall as the other starts to rise in arabesque. Swanilda's friends and the Czardas in Act One were particularly ragged. Part of what I love about ballet is that even people who aren't hardcore balletomanes can notice mistakes and imperfections right away. I was sitting with some friends who don't go to the ballet that often, and they noticed the "clunky" and "under-rehearsed" corps as well. There is no cheating in ballet. The orchestra blared Delibes' lovely, lilting score loudly and gracelessly and at times they were completely out of tune.


  1. Ivy -- I've noticed that you now have mis-spelled "port de bras" twice. Time to re-study Gail Grant's "Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet." Otherwise, good review.

  2. LOL, I always make the same spelling mistakes. Fixed. Thanks!


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