San Francisco Ballet’s Cotton Candy ‘Coppelia’

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~~~Once upon a time…~~~


 (on Saturday, March 19, 2011, to be exact)

A man named Helgi Tomasson successfully mined his Dancers’ numerous artistic riches, furthered his already gleaming reputation as one of the finest Artistic Directors in the world, and rewarded faithful SFBalletomanes by adding another gorgeous instant classic to the growing story ballet repertory of the San Francisco Ballet:

~~~Coppélia ~~~

(aka ‘Everyone’s Favorite Romantic Comedy Ballet’)

 Coppélia, along with La Fille Mal Gardée (translation: The Badly Guarded Daughter/Girl)is one of those oh-so-rare ‘laugh out loud’ story ballets, had long been missing from SFB’s arsenal of classic full-lengths (though this Danilova/Balanchine choreography is different than William Christensen’s 1939 production, where it was the first full-length Ballet created for SFB, then known as ‘San Francisco Opera Ballet’), and is already a fast favorite here, based on the cheers and general merriment on Opening Night.

That Mr. Tomasson is instrumental in bringing us the same Alexandra Danilova/George Balanchine choreography he danced at New York City Ballet in his youth (he was Mr. Balanchine’s chosen ‘Franz’, the comedic male lead and Swanilda’s dazed and confused boyfriend) should come as no surprise; that this ballet still plays to thunderous applause from today’s sophisticated set of balletomanes who count William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon, and Wayne McGregor as their favorite choreographers, speaks volumes for the Dancers who bring it to life through superb mime and spectacular dancing.

Rather than dubbing this the new jewel in SFB’s tiara, one might be more on the mark by describing this Coppélia as the newest (and sweetest) confection in the candy store. But then one would be vastly understating its lasting allure; when the mime sequences are done well, it is comic genius. With the considerable help of Judith Fugate’s and Garielle Whittle’s staging, Opening Night’s Cast does it well

There is something for everybody in this Coppélia. Supremely silly with its guffaw-inducing Act 2’s Dr. Coppélius’ Secret Workshop, its Act 3, A Village Wedding and Festival of Bells, still features enough bravura dancing for the stars, as well as many of the other Dancers, to satiate any balletomane’s tastes. 

Vanessa Zahorian & San Francisco Ballet Dancers in publicity shot for Danilova/Balanchine’s ‘Coppélia’; Choreography by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson

 With its abundance of pink tutus, worn in the 2nd Act by Swanilda’s ‘Friends’ (more like ‘Co-Conspirators’), and again in the 3rd Act by the Baby Ballerina Brigade (OdetteSpeak for the 24 lovely, brilliantly coached, and expertly backstage ‘chaperoned’ SFB Students that lend their significant charm to an already enchanting ballet), one might be quick to dismiss the entire ballet as mere froth.

Bubbly, light-hearted, silly, nonsensical at times-all would be apt descriptions. And yet there is so much more that adds up to what can only be called the most ridiculously sublime and deceptively simple comedic tour-de-force that is this Coppélia.

I have always loved Léo Delibes’ highly danceable score (including excerpts from his own Sylvia ballet) and Opening Night had me reveling in its charms, sumptuously played by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under Martin West’s capable baton. Coupled with this production’s vivid and glorious ‘technicolor’ Act 1 set (‘Bravi!’ to Scenic and Costume Designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, and Lighting Designer Randall G. Chiarelli), with village buildings looking like porcelain teapots and an abundance of wisteria hanging from the arbored ceiling, I was seduced before the story even began.

~~~And what of the Dancers?~~~

Maria Kochetkova in Danilova/Balanchine’s ‘Coppélia’; Choreography by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin revealed their substantial comedic gifts on Opening Night, each giving new meaning to the word ‘adorable’. Their total commitment to their roles, coupled with the fact that these are two of the Company’s most popular Dancers, garnered well-deserved giggles and out-and-out laughter from young and old alike. Even a jaded balletomane like myself couldn’t contain my glee.

When Maria’s Swanilda stamps her foot or shakes her fist with the indignity of it all, we laugh. When she peeks out behind the pillar to spy on Franz, we laugh. When she snubs him like a child throwing a tantrum, we laugh. When she mimics the doll, her ‘rival’, we laugh some more. And we only stop laughing when we are too busy being amazed by her precise and explosive technique in the 3rd Act. 


Gennadi Nedvigin in Balanchine’s ‘Coppélia’; Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson 

One would have to look far to find a more perfect Franz than Gennadi Nedvigin. Yes, Franz is a potentially cheating boyfriend, but the fact that his other romantic interest is actually a life-sized doll, and not the human rival Swanilda imagines, makes all his wayward amorous antics instantly forgiveable and hilarious. His quest for a kiss, both from Swanilda and her nemesis Coppélia, is endearing beyond belief. Mime is crucial to the story and both of our stars are perfect exemplars of this fine art. Newsflash: Gennadi Nedvigin is funny.

The hilarity of Act 2 is a study of pure comic genius. Damian Smith renders his Dr. Coppélius with a real touch of humanity, for all his apparent eccenticities as the ‘mad scientist’ character in this ballet. He is touching as the crotchety old hermit whom we can’t help feeling sorry for; his attempts at recreating life betray a deeper despair of a soul seeking companionship, rather than that of a crazed contol freak.


Gennadi Nedvigin & Damian Smith in Danilova/Balanchine’s ‘Coppélia’; Choreography by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson 

But it is Swanilda and her ‘Friends’ that garner the highest comedic praise in Act 2. Surely a more ridiculously charming bevy of Ballerina bon bons couldn’t be found than this night’s group of pink tutu’d Dancers; Maria Kochetkova and her entourage of sneaking pals, danced by Dores Andre, Clara Blanco, Nicole Ciapponi, Sasha DeSola, Jordan Hammond, Madison Keesler, Alexandra McCullagh, and Alexandra Meyer-Lorey, brought the loudest laughter from the audience all night. These bright pink girly girls sneaking into Dr. Coppelius’ Secret Workshop (as if tip-toeing around in near-neon pink wouldn’t be noticed), and then trembling in a huddle, with their knees knocking and shoulders quivering, might just be worth the price of admission. Bravi to these fine Dancers for bringing this comedic choreography to life in a way that still makes me laugh with the memory of it.   

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 4 Dancers who remain absolutely still throughout the majority of Act 2. (If you think it’s easy, then you haven’t tried it.) These are Dr. Coppélius’ ‘Automatons’: the Astrologer Doll, the Juggler Doll, the Acrobat Doll, and the Chinese Doll played by Diego Cruz, Benjamin Stewart, Lonnie Weeks, and Daniel Baker, respectively.

Lonnie Weeks’ Acrobat had the most significant role of the 4 and he used it to the utmost of his ability, seemingly springing into dynamic split-jumping life from where he sat, just a mere second ago, in a comfortable (-ish) sitting 2nd position. Absolutely riveting in everything he dances, Mr. Weeks continues to captivate all that see him. This young man is totally dedicated to making the most out of every opportunity he is given (which in turn earns him more golden opportunities), and it’s a pleasure to witness his SFB career unfold. Throughout this 2011 Season, I have found myself eagerly anticipating every moment he steps onstage. In point of fact, all 4 of these men are a fine representation of the Company’s ‘through and through’ male talent.

Act 3 is complete and utter nonsense, in terms of plot; the thing is, we don’t care! It is one of story ballet’s grand old traditions to have a ‘Wedding Scene’ (Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote are good examples), simply to show off the expert craftsmanship of the Dancers in a celebratory finale, and this one does not disappoint. A Village Wedding and Festival of Bells is, in many ways, larger than life.

Some of the finest high-level SFB Students are ‘Bell Ringers’ and ‘Village Girls’ (Ellen Rose Hummel was elevated to ‘Bride’ status to dance with some of our favorite Corps Dancers), and this Act is the one that features the afore-mentioned ‘Baby Ballerina Brigade’, hearkening back to the grand Petipa tradition, led with exquisite grace by Company favorite Courtney Elizabeth, in the Waltz of the Golden Hours. It’s something to give 24 sets of parents reason to be proud. It’s also a little awe-inspiring as we glimpse the stars of tomorrow. (Keep those Cast sheets, peeps!)

Maria Kochetkova & Gennadi Nedvigin in Danilova/Balanchine’s ‘Coppélia’; Choreography by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson

 Not least of the night’s surprises were the appearances of some of SFB’s biggest stars in ‘demi’-type roles: Sarah Van Patten, SFB’s accomplished star dramatic ballerina in her own right, danced the role of ‘Dawn’ with the lightness of a fresh, new, dewy Spring morning itself. Infinitely lyrical, Ms. Van Patten’s brief solo added much to the production’s overall finesse, as did the serenely reverent Sofiane Sylve as ‘Prayer’, a role that could have been created on her. Ms. Sylve, a former ‘Balanchine’ (New York City Ballet) dancer herself, looked at home in the choreography as she does in any of Balanchine’s masterpieces-ever worship-worthy in the ‘Ballerina as Goddess’ roles . Clara Blanco, the exemplar for beautiful épaulement, absolutely shone as ‘Spinner’ and gave us all reason to wonder (again) when this talented Ballerina will be promoted.  (Fans, back me up in your comments, please!)

In spite of the absolutely over-the-top costumes and nonsensical (and slightly ridiculous) appearance of the ‘Discord and War’ ensemble (we are talking thunder and lightening, followed by spears and Trojan headdresses here, peeps), this segment was finely danced by the entire group, and led by 2 audience favorites, SFB Soloists Elana Altman and Hansuke Yamamoto. And about dancing with those spears and headdresses…can’t be easy.

The ‘Jesterettes’ costumes were also less pleasing to my eye than many of the others on display (more like modified harum outfits, too pale in palette for my taste), but Dores Andre, Charlene Cohen, Sasha DeSola, and Dana Genshaft added a playful seductive quality with their synchronicity and jingle-jangle bells. Each one of these Dancers is well-loved and has been seen in some of the Company’s most coveted roles, including this season’s Classical Symphony (Possokhov), Trio (Tomasson), Artifact Suite (Forsythe), Symphony in C, and Theme and Variations (both Balanchine) to name but a few.  

The finale, of course, was a brilliantly danced Wedding (the ‘Peace’ that follows ‘Discord and War’) Grand Pas de Deux performed by our stars, Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin. Precision and classical bravura are what we expect from this pair of elegant classicists…and they delivered and then some.

Maria Kochetkova & Gennadi Nedvigin in Danilova/Balanchine’s ‘Coppélia’; Choreography by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson

‘Masha’s’ footwork is light as a feather, made possible through her exquisite training of her metatarsals (that same strength propelled her floating walks like no other in Giselle-she works through her entire foot), her upper body equally supple, full of lyrical phrasing, and strong. This is the same Dancer who thrills us with torqued torso positions in Possokhov’s Classical Symphony and Elo’s Double Evil. Yet she is Bolshoi trained and that still remains one of her most breathtaking qualities. When this Swanilda dances, there is an audible collective intake of air in the audience. (I am not immune.)

Gennadi Nedvigin is a ‘Dancer’s Dancer’, maybe like Tomasson was himself,  and his cabrioles (a jump featuring a diagonal scissor beating of the legs) could be photographed at any moment in space, with not a fault to be found. One of his amazing qualities is the remarkable quietude and maintenance of classical line in his neck and shoulders, during his entrechats and turns. His purity in technique, elegant lines, control and precision are not bettered by anyone in the Company. Often perceived as a ‘quiet’ Dancer, his significant boyish charm and comedic flair as ‘Franz’ may propel him into a larger spotlight. His Opening Night status in this ballet is unquestionable. In essence: his Franz is a little devil!  

 In spite of the brilliantly danced Grand Pas de Deux, by our star pair in the Wedding Act, I’d have to say that it’s the comedic timing and characterizations of the entire cast that will remain longest in my memory. I had no idea Maria ‘Masha’ Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin were so hilarious. It brings to mind the same feeling I had when I first saw Sarah Van Patten (not to mention the equally funny Vanessa Zahorian) in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert. These Dancers have a wealth of talent, star power, and personal charisma, with comedic charm now a new feather in their caps.

With all the headlines of true ‘Discord and War’, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease, and famine, why not treat yourself to something sublimely silly and refreshingly ridiculous? San Francisco Ballet’s Coppélia is like a breath of fresh air for the soul and delightfully appropriate for the whole family. 


Vanessa Zahorian & Vitor Luiz (stars in their own Coppélia performances) in publicity shot for Danilova/Balanchine’s ‘Coppélia’; Choreography by Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson


~~~Of Interest~~~

Once again, SFB has endeavored to co-produce a full length ballet with another company, last time with American Ballet Theater sharing the production costs of Lubovitch’s Othello, this time sharing production of Coppélia with Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, where it has already made its premiere. Co-producing a ballet is still not as prevalent as it is in the Opera world and seems to be a wise choice in this troubled economy. 

I find it also interesting to note that a contingent of PNB’s Board of Directors was in the audience for SFB’s Opening Night performance (and presumably for subsequent performances). One member was reportedly very moved by the performance, and said as much to a friend of mine. 

Here’s the PNB ‘Trailer’:

>>>Coppelia Trailer<<<

  Read the Coppélia Program Notes from San Francisco Ballet’s web site here.

Watch Coppélia ‘Behind the Scenes’: 

Read Vanessa Zahorian’s Coppélia blog on SFB’s Open Studio 455 page here.

Read Nicole Ciapponi’s Coppélia blog on SFB’s Open Studio 455 page here.

Read Bravo Volunteer Christina Hecht’s blog on chaperoning 24 young ballerinas in pink tutus, backstage before their Coppélia entrance here.

(^the professionalism exhibited by these young Dancers is a marvel!)


(all together now)

~~~…they all lived happily ever after.~~~

Note to readers: 

Odette’s Ordeal is still in ‘Pre-Launch’ mode, but soon Odette’s 1st SFB Dancer interview, and its accompanying exclusive photo shoot (!), along with some of Odette’s Dancer Bios (and their accompanying photo slideshows), will be making their appearances.

Yes, Odette’s Ordeal isn’t just a blog, it’s an entire web site dedicated to the Dancers & Fans of San Francisco Ballet. 

Visit Odette’s About page for an exciting preview!

‘See You at the Ballet!’


About Odette's Ordeal

'Ballet's Head Cheerleader'
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2 Responses to San Francisco Ballet’s Cotton Candy ‘Coppelia’

  1. michael mcgraw says:

    just read your site for the first time. really terrific. love your knowledge and appreciation of the company.

    • Thank you so much, Michael; it’s great to have you aboard! Speaking of ‘funny’, we also appreciate your own multiple talents. Just curious: on your resume, do you list ‘butterfly net’ as one of the instruments that you play? You’re really quite good at it!

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