The great classical ballets are founded on great stories. Coppélia is true to form, and enriched with comedy, and some of the most heart lifting music ever written for ballet by Leo Delibes — the “oh here’s where that comes from” kind of music!
The setting is an idyllic central European village during festival time, rendered with a watercolor rich background, sketchy enough to give breath to imagination. Frantz loves two “women, ” Swanilda (swanny word play on Wagner and Swan Lake) who returns his love, and Coppelia, a full-sized animated doll who sits on a high porch in the home of Dr. Coppelius, her inventor-maker, reading a book (upside down as we find out).
In Act II, Frantz, Swanilda and her friends find their way into Dr. Coppelius’ workshop where Swanilda disguises herself as the automaton, the ruse revealing to Frantz (once he wakes up from Coppelius’ potion) that Coppelia does not exist — not as a real woman — and the lovers are reconciled. Dr. Coppelius, danced by Adam Hendrickson, is left holding the limp form of a rag doll.
Thus, with the lovers united, the story thins after Act II but Act III is so filled with gorgeous dancing, including the ecstatic pas de deux between Frantz and Swanilda, that one hardly notices.
The idyllic setting and implausible persuasiveness of the wind up doll might make Coppelia in outline seem a childish story but it isn’t. All major, and mature, emotions come into play, arrowing upward for Frantz and Swanilda, with Dr. Coppelius a tragic counterpoint. Flirtation, desire, love, betrayal, jealousy, plans that succeed, plans that go awry, joy and despair: the issues are fundamental, conveyed with the full depth and breadth of emotion through dance.
Tiler Peck danced the tour de force role of Swanilda that calls on the ballerina to perform full classical ballet and, in Act II, to dance with the mechanical motions of the pretend wind up doll, and even semi-wind up as the ruse begins to deteriorate. The victory of the real woman over the “doll” in her lover’s affections is a satisfying moment (though we’re never really worried about her) — and a notably feminist theme and outcome for a ballet completed in 1884. For perspective, Henrik Ibsens’ A Doll’s House was first performed in 1879.
Andrew Veyette was electrifying as Frantz: he has the strength and big leaps of the great male dancers with an individualizing loose limbed flexibility. The program notes call Frantz a “country bumpkin” but it’s hard to connect the word “bumpkin” with that kind of dancing — although it’s true, he was taken in by that “doll” — at first.
A classical ballet like Coppelia compells one to compare the physical characteristics of men and women that fuel the soaring culminations of desire. Voyeurism, yes! One contrasts constantly the shape of the female torso with the male, the legs, the arms, the neck, the faces as the dancers perform the full range of movements. These ballets let us have our cake and eat it, too. The piper is paid by the discipline of the forms and the years of hard work the dancers have invested in their skill. These cast a permissive veil over sheer elemental eroticism.