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Jay Rogoff: NYCB Brings its Living Doll to SPAC

Coppélia is the great comic ballet of the 19th century, and the New York City Ballet production should delight anyone at any age. George Balanchine and his colleague Alexandra Danilova created NYCB’s version in 1974 expressly for the company’s summer audiences at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Thursday night’s marvelous performance offered Megan Fairchild as the improbably named Swanilda and Anthony Huxley as her sweetheart, Frantz. Andrew Litton conducted the rich score by Léo Delibes.

Swanilda, a clever village girl, loves Frantz, but Frantz has a crush on beautiful but cold Coppélia, who sits on her balcony reading all day and never notices him. Swanilda and her eight friends sneak into the workshop of Coppélia’s guardian, the eccentric inventor Dr. Coppélius, where she discovers Coppélia is a mechanical doll. She rescues Frantz from Coppélius’s clutches, making possible their joyous wedding in the final act.

Fairchild has perfected the necessary comic timing and balletic technique for Swanilda. She waltzes carefree in the village square, shooting little come-ons to her rival, then dismissing her with a “phooey” wave. Huxley’s Frantz is a dynamo who loves to show off, whirling and leaping in his terrific Act 1 solo. But he’s also sensitive, and in a rustic fertility ritual, he hears the seed in Swanilda’s wheatstalk when she has despaired of their ever marrying.

Fairchild shines when Coppélius returns unexpectedly to his workshop and Swanilda must masquerade as Coppélia, dancing like a clockwork toy. Wonderstruck, the adoring dollmaker transfers, he believes, life force from the drunken Frantz into his doll. He pulls her up on pointe, now fully alive, and Swanilda displays the legato elegance of a human ballerina. One of the ballet’s great jokes is thus an implicit one: the highly stylized gestures of ballet identify Swanilda as a real woman, and the artificiality of the ballerina’s expressiveness convinces us she has true flesh and blood feelings.

Principal dancer Andrew Veyette gave his first performance in the character role of Coppélius. He sketches the dollmaker’s foolish pride, but as he develops the role, he will surely probe more of the inventor’s sinister obsession with his beautiful creation.

Coppélia also includes rousing dances for the corps de ballet, including Delibes’s famous mazurka in act one. The act three wedding celebration includes numbers devoted to the activities of life: dawn, prayer, work, play, war, and finally peace, suggesting the good life love and marriage make possible. Twenty-four little girls, who dance up a storm, represent the hours of the day, but also the next generation who will inherit our ordered world.

Peace arrives in the form of a climactic wedding pas de deux for Swanilda and Frantz, filled with images of their newfound devotion and trust. Huxley kneels to Fairchild, and she extends her body elegantly along his shoulders. He lifts her with delicate care high into the air. They grow more daring, with a quick circle of turns for Fairchild and beating leaps for Huxley, until they end with Fairchild racing toward Huxley and taking a flying plunge into his arms in an upside-down fish dive, a true image of mutual trust. Coppélia ends by proving peace is the most exciting thing there is.

Jay Rogoff has published six collections of poetry and writes about dance for The Hopkins Review and Ballet Review. His next book, Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, will appear from LSU Press next year.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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