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Coppelia Question #1: Do you take Coppelia seriously?


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"Coppelia" [there should be an accent, grave, I believe, over the "e" in French; in Danish, there's no accent. I'll be Danish on this thread :) ]

"Coppelia" is a ballet that's been a bit out of fashion lately -- a staple of semi-professional companies as a spring show, but no longer a vehicle for star ballerinas -- at least, not often. One of the most revolutionary things George Balanchine ever did was to stage a "Coppelia" in 1974, at the height of the triumph of post-modernism, two years after the Stravinsky Festival with its oh, so modern ballets. It was a year before I came to ballet, so I only know of the shock this caused second hand. But it did cause a shock.

So, with that preamble, and since we have posters of several generations here, do you take "Coppelia" seriously as one of the great ballets? Why or why not.

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Perhaps because it's one of the comic ballets, people put it second to such drama as Giselle and Swan Lake. But, I think, in light of how ballet is evolving, Coppelia is one of those 'gem' ballets. If it's survived this long, and the audience still finds it amusing, there must be some of that hidden 'stage magic' sprinkled on it somewhere.

Just as how the supreme control/girliness of Aurora, the different sides of Odette and Odile, and the wonder and excitement of Clara (Nutcracker) are essential personalities to learn, to become an animated doll or the owner of a hopelessly flirty boyfriend (Franz) is a challenge in itself.

So for me, I think Coppelia deserves to be on the list with the 'great ballets'. If we're considering the great Swanhildas then the ballet itself must have a legacy too, right?



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I agree with Luka. I think people sometimes don't take "Coppelia" seriously because it's a comedy. There are actors who will tell you that often comedy is more difficult to bring off than tragedy, and I think comedy tells us just as much, if not more, of the human condition than tragedy.

Also, as Juliet noted, the score is a fine one and, like "Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake," probably one of the main reasons why "Coppelia" has endured.

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I used to not give a lot of credit to Coppelia, but then I saw a video relatively recently from which I learned that there is substance to this ballet. It deals with love and forgiveness in a comic fashion, and I thought it looked rather challenging, technically. Furthermore, my experience tells me that it is true that tragedy is easier to play than comedy... you have to have good comic timing, for one thing.

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I vote for it being a great ballet, in part of course because of the score. But Sylvia and Raymonda have wonderful scores, and they have not endured as well. Coppelia also has a very clear, interesting plot, which is well-developed with a lot of variety, and believable characters. It has enough depth (illusion vs reality, man's pride of creation, etc.) to save it from complete frivolity.

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I strongly agree that the score plays a role in Coppelia's being a major ballet -- but also the story, which is loosely (admitedly, very loosely) based on a Hoffman story that has generated volumes of interpretation including a very famous essay by Freud. Just the human/mechanical opposition gives the ballet a deeply resonant theme, and one it shares with other major art works; it's a theme that also allows for metaphors that reflect on ballet itself as an art -- e.g. anxiety about the mechanical, heartless quality of ballet technique. (The whole ballet plays character dancing off against classical pointe technique etc. -- presumably lots of bad nineteenth-century ballets did that, too, but in this case it gets thematized or reflected on in Swanilda's Act II transformations. It's a ballet 'about' forgiveness etc., but also a ballet about ballet. Maybe that's why Balanchine wanted to stage it.)

Taking a somewhat different emphasis, and one that would relate Coppelia to earlier romantic ballets, Croce describes Swanilda as a Shavian heroine who has to bring the dreaming/fantasizing hero down to earth and back to real life -- with Coppelius a kind of failed artist who never did entirely return from his dreams back to the everyday. (I'm paraphrasing Croce based on memory and may be elaborating a bit.) In a sense Coppelius is a belated version of Pygmalion -- Pygmalion in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Even the Wagner parodies that the Balanchine/Danilova version include partly underline the way this is a ballet about ballet (or theater more broadly), as well as a ballet about the undoing of romantic myth. No more unattainable dream women (Sylphs or Valkyries) -- or, rather, a robot instead.

None of this would be able to take theatrical effect, if there weren't the choreography to sustain the sheer dance interest. That's why it's a ballet and not a Hoffman story! But the evidence of the various productions I've seen is that enough remains of the "original" -- steps/structure/atmosphere -- to say that there is a choreographic template and it works.

I agree, too, with Luka's comment that the ballet's rich history counts for something in this discussion. It's an important work if for no other reason than that it has been the scene of important performances. That alone might not be reason enough to keep staging Coppelia, but it is a part of the larger picture.

I guess it's clear by now how I would answer the question. Yes, indeed, I do take Coppelia seriously as a major ballet!

[ 05-21-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

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Thanks for that lovely analysis, Drew. I think there's a lot more to Coppelia than pink cotton candy, too. The idea of a man creating life, and creating an ideal that is a doll that he can manipulate seems quite contemporary, too :) (New divertissement to include A Sheep Called Dolly.)

One of the most moving scenes in this ballet I've seen was Fredbjorn Bjornsson as Coppelius, because he really believed he'd done it, finally succeeded, after all these years, and the belief, and the love he had for her, was so intense it made his moment of realization that he had been duped absolutely heartbreaking. One felt he had a total of four minutes of happiness in his entire life.

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It's Coppélia, with an acute accent over the e. Also: Dr. Coppélius.

By the way, it's one of my favorites. It's not very deep or anything, but indeed, why should it have to be? It's one well-known ballet that has no element of magic or tragedy. Really, it's a ballet for the Industrial Age.

Yes, it has a fantastic score — and I agree that's one of the reasons it's endured — but I'm beginning to like the music of Sylvia better: There's more of an emotional scope in Sylvia.

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Thanks, nijinsky1979, for recovering this fascinating thread from the early days of Ballet Talk

The Balanchine Coppelia, which is the only version I know, has always struck me as being one of the less satisfying full-lengths, despite its charming score, and I don't know why. Possibly Mel put his finger on it for me when he raises the issue of how very difficult it is to do comedy effectively.

Coppelia must be taken seriously by an audience, even if they know it's a comedy! And it must be taken seriously by the dancers, as well! Problems erupt for a "comic" ballet (or comic anything) that falls somewhere between cheap yox, and High Truth!

I would add to this: "Coppellia must be taken seriously by its stagers and dancers." Perhaps too many performances in which the ballet has been done with inconsistency of style and tone, with too much jokiness in the first and second acts and too little sense continuity (and wonder) in the third, have slightly spoiled it for me.

Similarly, although Drew and Alexandra raise the matter of the significant themes in the story, I am struck by the question of whether these ideas -- which can be justified on paper -- can actually be communicated from the stage, to the audience, during performance. I'd love to be conviced that I am wrong.

(I should add that I go back to the first performances at NYCB and have seen several Miami perfornances in recent years.)

So, to return to Alexandra's original question: "Do you take Coppelia seriously?" I would add: If so, how and why? If not ... why not?

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Yes, I take Coppelia seriously, and find it one of my favourite ballets--easily. Loved the Balanchine with McBride, and never anything quite so much since, but there's a good DVD of the POB production I saw recently. Interesting discussions of the mechanical reproduction, and the 'robot' instead of the 'dream women', but that's an 'element of magic' (thought not tragedy), surely. Also important is the difficulty of comedy, and I agree with Alexandra that it tells us just as much as tragedy about the human condition (and anything else, for that matter, if there is any), because how could that be different from theater? High comedy is accessible only to a select few, nothing easy about it, although I don't think this applies to contemporary movies at all, where comedy is an extension of TV sitcoms or jokey stuff, not comedy in the old traditional sense of theater. These matters of comedy are not like Joan Rivers and Comedy Store types. I like all these ideas, which have enhanced my understanding of Coppelia, although not my enjoyment probably, because I was just fine enjoying it without thinking about it too much. And the score definitely makes it preferable to me to anything set to Minkus. I like it better than Raymonda too, which has nice music, but Glazunov is better in short doses, in which it sounds elegant; an evening full of Glazunov runs into a sense of banality and it gets boring. I can easily see a one-act ballet of Glazunov pleasing me more. But the word for Coppelia is mainly 'delicious.'

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do you take "Coppelia" seriously as one of the great ballets? Why or why not.

Coppelia. Oh, how do i miss it! I read somewhere that George Balanchine once declared "Giselle" to be ballet's great tragedy and "Coppelia" its great comedy. Both are equally popular in Cuba. I would say that it is no accident that both became signature pieces for the Havana troupe, for which we cubans' love of these two works runs deep, and Mme.Alonso has spent a lifetime refining each to perfection. The breathtaking results of her devotion to "Coppelia" really shows on her version. One have to remember that Alonso's involvement with "Giselle" is legend, but she in fact danced Swanilda in "Coppelia" first, in Nikolai Yavorski's 1935 production in Cuba when she was only 15. She collaborated with Leon Fokine, at the time a teacher at the Alicia Alonso Academy in Havana, on her first "Coppelia" staging in 1948 with her venerated Igor Youskevitch as her loving Franz. Then in 1957, Andre Eglevsky was her Franz, in that other historic "Coppelia" mounted at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles-(from which there's that clip that i posted in the videos forum). Then the 1968 Alonso "Coppelia" for her Ballet Nacional de Cuba became, like her definitive 1972 "Giselle" for both the Paris Opera Ballet and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the standard by which I always judge all other choreographic versions. On the other side, let's not forget that Fokine influence on Cuban ballet is at least as strong as that of the Italian Enrico Zanfretta or any later Russian influence. The sensual and exquisite boundaries of the Cuban style are defined by Alonso's "Coppelia" as much as by her "Giselle." Alonso's historically informed reconstruction of the original 1870 Arthur Saint-Leon and later Marius Petipa versions of "Coppelia" carries the unmistakable post-Romantic line and flavor that marked the Fokine revolution in the early 20th century. The superhuman demands on virtuosity are more than in any other "Coppelia" production: Swanilda's Act 3 solo alone demands the technical fireworks of, say, a couple of Rose Adagios with Giselle's Act 1 extended pointe solo added for good measure-(and believe me, the Cuban audience shows no mercy if what is expected is not delivered in a 150 %, both technically and artistically). But more than all the classical complexity-(and hey, Cubans toss off impossible steps as if they were the easiest thing in the world )- there is real humanity in Coppelia's dancing. Basically, for me Mme.Alonso's "Coppelia" matters because it makes me believe in the power of dance to reaffirm the best in all of us...and yes, this is enough of a reason for me to take this ballet very seriously...if I may. :D


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On the NYCB performance forum, FauxPas raised the following question. I thought it would be worth copying it to this thread, since there's clearly a lot of interest in, knowledge about, and fondness for Coppelia here.

I was struck by similarities between the Freddy Franklin staging done now at American Ballet Theater and the Balanchine/Danilova version. Clearly the first act (theme and variations grand pas) and third act divertissements are superior at NYCB because they are entirely Balanchine. However the second act is almost identical in every detail in both stagings. Clearly Franklin and Danilova were working from a common Ballets Russes source. Whether there is an earlier Maryinsky source choreography that is Petipa or more likely Nicolai Legat that Nicolai Sergeyeff used at Ballets Russes is an issue I will throw to the ballet historians more qualified than I on this site.

What are the origins of these versions? How did they come to be both similar and dissimilar?

Thanks, FauxPas, for your insights into this ballet and for your questions.

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the N. Sergeyev notations give "M. Petipa and E. Cecchetti" as the choregraphic source(s) of its documents.

"the cast at time of notation" oddly lists only the mazurka soloists - Oboukhova and Kshesinsky; Petipa and Bekeffi - and Dr. Coppelius - Gerdt - and no one else. no mention is made of the Swanilda and Franz of the notated cast(s).

a further note indicates the notations' COPPELIA documentation also includes a "a cast list of a later production with Danilova as Swanhilda and Panaieev as Frans, for a ballet company of the western world, post revolution."

it would seem to follow then that what Danilova staged for NYCB came from what she did in her Ballet Russe days, which no doubt was similar to what the N. Sergeyev notations indicated.

Petipa's first COPPELIA in 1884 included Swanilda as Varvara Nikitina; Franz as Gerdt; Coppelius as T. Stukolkin [the first Drosselmeier]; in the Cecchetti/Petipa staging from 1894 the Swanilda was Legnani.

from what one knows of the production(s) for the Sadlers Wells (now Royal) Ballet, which come from use of the N. Sergeyev notations, it would seem that much about the ballet remained consistent from production to production.

additionally here's what the Balanchine catalogue says of NYCB's staging:

<<Music: By Léo Delibes (Coppélia, ou la Fille aux Yeux d'Émail, produced 1870, with excerpts from Sylvia, ou la Nymphe de Diane, produced 1876, and La Source [Naïla], 1866). Book by Charles Nuitter, after E. T. A. Hoffmann's Der Sandmann (1815). >>

<<Balanchine and Danilova collaborated to reproduce parts of Petipa's choreography for Coppélia, which they had learned while students at the Imperial Ballet School; Danilova had later become a leading interpreter of the role of Swanilda. Balanchine created entirely new choreography for Act III, and for the mazurka and czardas in Act I, and made slight revisions in other dances in Act I. Using music from Sylvia, Balanchine created a male variation for Act I and a complete pas de deux for Act III, in which the male variation is taken from his Sylvia: Pas de Deux. >>

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It's really a dicey deal trying to figure out the genealogy of the present Coppélia. The Danes have their version, which has soldiered on to the present, the Paris Opéra has its production, which has been tinkered with over the years, and even in Britain, they knew the ballet before the Sergeyev stagings. Adeline Genée did her version in 1906.

It's hard to know what influenced whom in the various stagings, but the second act is pretty much a frame for three variations for Swanilda, and a lot of mime surrounding. There's not a lot of variety you can get from that scenario.

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interesting, Mel, you connect 3 variations to Swanilda's Coppelia in act 2 - in fact, aren't there actually two: the Spanish (Bolero) and the Scottish (Gigue)?

the Danilova/Balanchine version treats the 'awakening' of Swanilda to 'full life' (the Scène et valse de la poupée) as a kind of pas de deux and i wonder if that's the choice these stagers made or if it's what they recalled from the imperial ballet production.

and i suppose one could call the Scène et valse de la poupée a variation as well.

i too keep catching myself from thinking of three stand-alone variations for Swanilda/Coppelia when Delibes and St. Leon seem precisely to have arranged only two.

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I usually call the valse a variation as well, in comparison to the pantomime that comes immediately before and after it. I did my first Coppélius when I was 21, and made him the oldest dollmaker in captivity. In fact, my makeup suggested that I had been dead for maybe the last couple of weeks. I guess that there is a lot of byplay between him and Swanilda during the valse, but it's actually a lot less strenuous than the pantomime.

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I am assuming that what I saw with the Ballet Russe was the 1938 Sergeyev version; it was in their repertoire until their demise in 1960. I find it superior to the NYCB version. The ACT II NYCB is pretty much identical with the BR version. It's Act I and III that cause problems for me (especially Act III). In the BR version there were only two solo variations---Dawn and Prayer---the waltz of the golden hours, all those kiddies, the spinner variations add too much unnecessary filler to the Act--and what's with the Discord & War PDD? ( But, I have these same reservations about B's Midsummer Night's Dream which makes me prefer Ashton's version. I sometimes have the feeling that Balanchine was looking for a full evening's work and just kept on adding and adding. The Coppelia of the BR years was probably the best production they had--and they had Danilova and Franklin.

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According to the accounts, back in the 70s Cynthia Gregory was invited to one of the International Ballet Festivals in Havana. One of the full lengh ballet she danced was Coppelia. When she was asked if she wanted to dance Swanilda's Entree/Vals of Act I to Alonso's staging she said: No... it is to strong for an entree, it is abusive for the ballerina!. After coming back from her US years, Mme. Alonso instituted this version, which suited her virtuosa status, and then all the cuban ballerinas followed her rule.

Rosario Suarez: Act I Entree. How can't one take Coppelia seriously after getting used to watch this...?

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one can of course prefer one version of a 'classic' over another, but a truncated act 3 of COPPELIA doesn't mean that when the Danilova/Balanchine used the full score that the result qualifies as filled with filler.

"War and Discord" honors Delibes' and St.Leon's ways of addressing the balelt's scenario about the Festival of Bells, this one being the tolling of the city's new bell to sound the alarm of war. the oddly shaped original pas de deux is to honor the bell's purpose to announce Peace.

GB likely felt it was keeping to the integrity of the score by using all the divertissements Delibes wrote for his catalogue of occasions when the Galician town bell would be rung, up to a point, to be sure, since he added music to this act to make the once oddly shaped pas de deux into a 'traditional' pas de duex.

someone wondered aloud leaving today's perf. of COPPELIA at NYCB if either of Petipa's stagings - in 1884 and 1894 - added music to beef up the pas de deux for those russian productions.

THE DREAM and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM are similar situations, in a way. Balanchine uses the score for act one in the order written; Ashton chose to re-arrange it. Nothing wrong with any artist making artistic choices.

if anyone cares for GB's "Dream" even a little, i encourage reading the essay by Anita Finkel included in READING DANCE; this presents her view of Balanchine's concept by way of the scheme of pas de deux. to be sure Finkel found no filler in GB's MIDSUMMER, which doesn't make her 'right,' but she does make a good case for her point of view.

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Coppellia is a great ballet, and Patricia McBride was GREAT as Swanilda. Not every ballerina wants to play such a person - -she seems to have no complexity, she's all extraversion and indeed pretty much the boss in this town, like the head cheerleader in high school --

But many thought it was Danilova's greatest role -- Gottlieb says so -- And Danilova was not without reflection. But she WAS irresistible when hte life force took her over, and that's what Swanilda should be like --

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