Balanchine's Coppelia and Makarova's Bayadere: "After" Petipa

Generations of Swanilda: Danilova, McBride, Hyltin
After a very successful three week tribute to Jerome Robbins NYCB this week returned to one of Balanchine's most charming creations: his version of Coppelia, which he and Alexandra Danilova reconstructed from their memories of the Imperial Ballet. This is Balanchine at his most "after Petipa" -- there is none of the abstract minimalism that was his calling card. His Coppelia is a full-blown three act story ballet with carefully articulated mime,  several folk/character dance numbers including a mazurka and czardas, and an unabashedly old-fashioned quality. The sets and costumes by Rouben Ter-Artunian are a shock of pastels that match Leo Delibes' lilting, gentle score. It is literally a world viewed through rose-colored glasses. Balanchine might have re-choreographed some of the steps (mostly in the third act -- the first two are very standard Coppélia choreography) but he clearly loved this ballet and that love is as important if not more so than following, say, Stepanov notations. Balanchine's Coppélia still delights audiences that sometimes sniff at anything that isn't a leotard ballet.

For this revival Mr. B's first Swanilda Patricia McBride was brought in to coach the current NYCB dancers. And what a wonderful move by the interim team because I saw a Sunday matinee performance where the mime and acting were more vivid than I've ever seen it in this ballet. Whatever words of wisdom McBride imparted worked.  The cast:

Cast during curtain calls
COPPÉLIA: SWANILDA: Hyltin; FRANTZ: Veyette; DR. COPPÉLIUS: La Fosse+; WALTZ: Villwock; DAWN: LeCrone; PRAYER: Wellington; SPINNER: Mann; WAR and DISCORD: Hod, Grant

I've never seen Hyltin's Swanilda before even though she made her debut in 2009 (???). I have seen Coppélia a number of times and there are basically two types of Swanildas: the cute, girlish Swanildas and the fierce, spunky Swanildas. Examples of fierce and spunky that I've seen: Tiler Peck Natalia Osipova and Gillian Murphy. Examples of cute and girlish: Xiomara Reyes and Megan Fairchild. Hyltin definitely fell in the cute, girlish category. Her sweet, innocent nature was established from the delicate way she wafted her arms in the opening waltz. When her fiancé Franz (a very funny if technically subdued Andrew Veyette) was mooning after Dr. Coppélius's doll Hyltin didn't go all mean girl. She just pouted and sulked. The dance with the ear of wheat looked delightfully naive.

Nellie Olsen: blond terror
Hyltin's Swanilda didn't really shine until the second act. All of sudden the nice, wholesome girl-next-door was a surreal, terrifying doll. Her hair was done in blond ringlets that made her look like a combination of Shirley Temple and Nellie Olsen. She was hilarious: she had a great sense of comic timing and nailed the doll imitation. Her flexible back allowed her to drop her torso for big, exaggerated "doll flops." Her great jumps helped: she flew around the stage in the Spanish dance.

I thought after the second act that her third act would be anti-climactic but it was not so. Her third act wedding pas and variations got stronger and stronger with each variation and she completed those menages of pique turns and series of grande battements/pirouettes en dedans with so much speed and security that she received huge cheers from a hitherto somewhat sleepy matinee audience. Although I'm bummed I had to miss Tiler Peck and Joaquin de Luz's performances this weekend Hyltin was a treasurable Swanilda.

Andrew Veyette is coming back from extensive injuries. His landings in the Act One variation were a bit heavy, and the difficult wedding variation with the double tours that land in second position and then takeoff from a second position plié looked effortful. But he's one of the company's best actors and comedians. He's always been very funny in The Concert and his Franz was delightfully flaky. Both he and Hyltin share a scrupulousness about articulating the mime -- it's not just about waving your hands around, but actually telling a story. Veyette's partnering is superb, and he has an uncanny ability to calm shaking hands in promenades. I don't know how he does it but a promenade can start with a mini-earthquake and end with picture-perfect security. The way he was able to turn Hyltin almost completely upside-down at the end of their pas de deux was a wow moment.

Whole cast curtain call
Robert La Fosse is a treasure. His Dr. Coppelius is well-acted and well-mimed, in a company not known for miming and acting. The wedding divertissements were mixed -- Megan LeCrone was an odd choice to lead the Dawn variation as she's not naturally a lyrical dancer. Lydia Wellington was lovely as Prayer and Meagan Mann beautiful if a bit tentative as Spinner. Ashley Hod and Christopher Grant made War and Discord look both campy and fun. As this video points out Balanchine was one of the few choreographers to retain the War and Discord number. The SAB students were adorable and their corps formations were neater than Swanilda's friends in Act One. The rousing finale ended with one of Balanchine's favorite tricks: the whole stage is dancing up a storm and the Swanilda leaps into Franz's arms with a fish-dive. The SAB students in that moment are rushing downstage in a diagonal with all the speed of, say, Lebron James rushing into the paint. The performance was a real "everything is beautiful at the ballet" experience.

There are three more performances of Coppélia in the season. Don't miss it.

Lane and Cornejo, Brandt, Gorak
Meanwhile across the plaza ABT kicked off its third week with La Bayadere. Thirty eight years ago Natalia Makarova set a streamlined version of her beloved ballet with the more limited resources of ABT in mind. Like Balanchine's Coppélia this was "after Petipa" and adapted to the strengths of one particular company. I've seen her production countless times, and  I have also seen La Bayadere in different productions including a wonderful performance by the Mariinsky last fall. And I will say this: the roles of Solor, Gamzatti, the Golden Idol, etc. have all been danced successfully by dancers of different backgrounds and training. But the title role of Nikya remains extremely wedded to Russian-trained dancers. Over the years the great Nikyas I've seen: Viktoria Tereshkina, Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Uliana Lopatkina, Veronika Part, Alina Cojocaru. What did these ladies have in common? All Russian-trained.

Nikya is not a bravura role. It's a role that's more about setting an aroma, if you will. And Russian-trained ballerinas with their flexible backs, liquidy arms, and a certain tendency to wallow in onstage suffering simply fit this role like a glove. With that being said, the current crop of ABT dancers are all very Not Russian, and they all put over a lovely performance of La Bayadere tonight.

The "flame" pose by Ekaterina Kondaorova
Top honors must go to tiny, fierce Sarah Lane who made her debut as Nikya. No she doesn't quite have the Russian upper body but she does have the lyricism, the conviction, and the adagio technique to do this role justice. And while her spine may not be a pretzel she does have a pliant torso. From her very first entrance when she raised her hands to make the "flame" shape (see: picture on left) you knew that she was taking her role as the temple dancer seriously. Her mime was clear: when Solor left the betrothal party with Gamzatti she threw the antidote down as if it were a piece of garbage and expired.

There's room for improvement. With experience I expect the pirouettes to arabesque in the Scarf Duet to be smoother -- tonight they were there but too obviously choreographed with those little breaks that make the gear shifting more obvious than is ideal. Then again I once saw Viktoria Tereshkina of all people come to grief in that treacherous pas. Lane's developpés in the Shades scene occasionally were rocky, and she seemed to lean on Cornejo's body to steady her.. For a debut, Lane had a triumph. And as I said, her greatest quality is not so much her technique but her sincerity. There's no artifice in her dancing.

Skylar Brandt as the spoiled, spiteful Gamzatti showed off her more straightforward, American technique. Brandt was also making a debut and she danced the steps well (including the Italian fouettes to regular fouettes that end the Betrothal pas de deux) but she could project more personality. The catfight between her and Nikya was not as exciting as it can be. And the partnering in the Grand Betrothal pas de deux between her and Cornejo had a few bumpy moments. But still, amazing technique, great future ahead of her.

Lane and Cornejo share a tender moment at curtain calls
Herman Cornejo is an old hat at this role. It's interesting to see as the years pass and the injuries pile up what he's kept and what's gone. Totally gone: his flexibility. Leg barely makes 90 degrees in arabesque, grand jetes look like a very narrow upside down V. Still there: his incredible elevation and his open, expansive cabrioles and double assemblés, as well as the ardency of his characterization. He drives the crowd into a frenzy: He's still he's an ABT treasure: a throwback to the days when the company had the most exciting male roster of all the major ballet companies. Corella, Carreno, Cornejo, Hallberg, Gomes ... Ah, good memories.

ABT Shades, photo @MIRA
The Shades were about par for ABT corps: they'll never have the security and uniformity of the Mariinsky but a few wobbly legs aside they acquitted themselves well in the repeated arabesques down the ramp. They did less well with the exposed steps in unison after the entrance of the Shades. It's just not ABT's strong suit. The three Shade variations had a veteran corps member (Zhong-Jing Fang) who knocked her variation out of the park, and an experienced corps girl (April Giangeruso) who was also very polished and a newbie (Catherine Hurlin, who was little Clara starred in the inaugural cast of Ratmansky's Nutcracker) showing spunk and promise but lacking some refinement. Joseph Gorak seems stuck in soloist purgatory but he danced the Golden Idol variation very well. Roman Zhurbin continues to be the company's best character dancer. His High Brahmin was everything you could have hoped for.

Will Makarova's Bayadere be replaced soon by a Ratmansky reconstruction? Perhaps, and her version does streamline the ballet in intrusive ways: the Grand Betrothal Scene for example is robbed of any sense of pomp and circumstance. I particularly miss the Manu jug dance. But Makarova's reconstructed final act does give the storyline a closure that is absent in other versions of the ballet. The famous dance critic Arlene Croce once referred to Makarova's revival as "a keeper of the flame." Tonight Sarah Lane kept that flame alive.


  1. Saw Coppelia last Friday and loved Peck and DeLis. McBride's coaching seemed to bring out more femininity in her. In any event, I have always loved Balanchine's version. It has verve and rhythmic brio that I don't see in any other version. As for La Bayadare , I like both Lane and Cornejo. Whatever technical deterioration, Cornejo at last night had more authority and more detailed acting. I saw him years ago and thought him was too short for the part. My ideal Solar will always be Gomes. Even though Lane is not Veronica Part in body type pro size she did well enough to be convincing. As for a Ratmansky' s reconstruction, I don't think it will work for ABT or its audience. Reconstruction would mean removal of all tacky male solos that added during the Soviet time. It would also mean more mime and character dancing. None of these plays to ABT' strength. Besides, I don't think ABT audience can live without those male solos and some of those character dances will offend someone who insists on political correctness. As flawed as Markoriva's version, I think it still the one that is right for ABT.

    1. The Sleeping Beauty was pretty well received ...

    2. I loved the sleeping beauty that Ratmansky did and I am a big fan of his. However, having seen a video of a reconstruction of La Bayadare on YouTube years ago, I am not sure the ABT audience who are only interested in tricks and stars is going to like a production where Gamazatti is more less a mime role and Solar does not do any of his solos. If Ratmansky can persuade ABT to finance a reconstruction, I did be the first one to see it.


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