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Bolshoi's 'Coppélia'

For those of us who grew up in the last century, the great Russian companies represented the gold standard of classical ballet, and perhaps none more so than the company from the Bolshoi Theater. The tradition in Moscow and St. Petersburg, home of the Kirov (now known as the Mariinsky Theater), went back to the heyday of Russian classical dance, the era of Marius Petipa, and the Soviet era had clamped down on any possibility of change or innovation, or so the train of thought went. As Alastair Macaulay pointed out earlier this month, in the New York Times, the idea that what the Bolshoi or Mariinsky now presents is exactly what Marius Petipa choreographed is absurd -- or any other company at any other point in time. Choreography is an impossibly fluid thing, rarely notated with great precision and likely to change from performance to performance according to the differences in dancers' bodies and trends in movement.

The Bolshoi has arrived in Washington this week, the latest visit to the area after Le Corsaire in 2009 and Cinderella in 2007. The Bolshoi is on a "Great Tour" of North America at the moment, following up on performances of Swan Lake in Toronto and Don Quixote in Ottawa with its revival of Coppélia, which opened last night for a week of performances at the Kennedy Center Opera House (it was featured in one of the company's live simulcasts last year). It is a light-hearted work, at least as it is staged here -- the choreography is credited to Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti, updated by Sergei Vikharev in a production that debuted in Moscow only in 2009, with handsome sets by Boris Kaminsky and colorful, folk-dress costumes by Tatiana Noginova (watch it on Youtube: Act I, Act II, Act III) -- not nearly as dark as the E.T.A. Hoffmann stories from which it is drawn. The story is set in a village in Galicia, a province now partly in Poland and partly in Ukraine, and concerns a peasant girl, Swanilda, and Franz, the young man she wants to marry, until he seems to be smitten with the mysterious daughter of the local eccentric toymaker, Dr. Coppélius. Taking advantage of a dropped set of keys, Swanilda and her friends break into the toymaker's house and learn that the mysterious girl is one of several complicated automatons -- and they save Franz, tricked by the toymaker, who wants to transfer his soul into the girl to make her come to life.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Created in 1870, ‘Coppelia’ is the freshest ballet around (Washington Post, May 31)

Alastair Macaulay, Recreating Lost Instants in a Reconstructed Ballet (New York Times, May 31)

Paula Citron, Bolshoi steps up the dancing in Swan Lake (Toronto Globe and Mail, May 16)
The piece is a good fit for the tiny, bouncy Nina Kaptsova, promoted to prima ballerina at the Bolshoi this year. She is a bundle of energy in the folk-inflected dances she has with Frantz (one can only hope the poor boy has an inkling of what a handful she will turn out to be), and even better when she pretends to be the mechanical girl in her plan to save Frantz. The joke of the ballet star as wind-up doll works equally well as it does for a coloratura soprano, in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, for example, although women in general may be offended. When Swanilda "becomes a real girl" in the second act, Dr. Coppélius (a lanky, winking-eyed Alexey Loparevich) offers a mirror for her to admire her own beauty, and she immediately launches into a series of willful tirades. Vanity and capriciousness are the qualities that distinguish women, after all. Rising soloist Artem Ovcharenko had a pleasing innocence as Frantz, although the strength and evenness of his solo numbers were not up to Kaptsova's standards. The corps de ballet was in top form -- unified, graceful, moving as one -- in the "Dance of the Hours" at the start of the third act and gave plenty of folksy zest, in pairs, to the famous mazurka and other folk dances in the first. Of the solo dances in the Act III divertissement, Anastasia Stashkevich (Dawn) and Anna Tikhomirova (Folie) were most striking.

In the pit, Igor Dronov elicited some beautiful sounds from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, if not a completely coherent reading of Léo Delibes's bubbly score. The music, often heard in excerpts in the concert hall, is given a forceful, Russian-accented reading, with a forlorn violin solo by concertmaster Oleg Rylatko in the Act I ballade and a lovely Act III viola solo. There is another striking moment in the first act, an example of how dance and music and be so perfectly joined, a set of variations on a Slavic theme, in which the evolution of steps, for Swanilda and her eight friends, reflects the formal movement of the music, with moments both scintillating and melancholy (an exquisite fourth variation with solo clarinet). This may not be a production or a cast to rave about, but it is a worthy resuscitation of one of the classics of the ballet canon.

This performance will be repeated several times through June 3, in the Kennedy Center Opera House, with different casts of dancers.

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