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Review: The Louisville Ballet's 'Coppélia' Delights

Swanhilde (Erica De La O) and Sophie in Dr. Coppélius' workshop
Sam English
Louisville Ballet's "Coppélia"

Robert Curran begins his second season with the Louisville Ballet, and the first that he has programmed in its entirety, with a revamp of the late 19th century ballet Coppélia.

The season's kickoff production, at the Brown Theatre, brings together a wealth of local talent. It is a joy to have the Louisville Orchestra playing; local artist Jacob Heustis created the scenic environment, and the ballet’s own costume master, Dan Fedie, designed the costumes.

This Coppélia, while retaining the key plot line of the familiar story, brings it into the 20th  century — and specifically into Louisville. The setting is 1917, as Louisville’s Germantown prepares for some of their boys to go off to World War I.

Heustis’ design pulls us into both the early 20th century avant garde and the area’s German heritage. His collage treatment of the flats (acts I and III) with the suggestion of local newspapers, letters and hand sketches of familiar landmarks epitomizes Cubist aesthetics while also suggesting traditional middle European wood engraving.  

The interior of Dr. Coppélius’ workshop (act II) is a grotto-like den of fantastical dolls, decorated with runes and hieroglyphics. Fedie’s costumes are delightfully evocative of the prewar years for the civilians (oh, those hats!), and the military uniforms are a reminder of the looming war. The overall design color palette suggests both fall and the period photographs in sepia.

The Louisville Ballet artists, trainees and additional players embrace the playful aspects of the first act — the familiar intrigue of "who is the girl in the window?" and the new business of neighborhood boys being fascinated with the soon-to-be-soldiers’ kit bags. Ripples of chuckles filled the Brown as these moments played out.

On opening night, Swanhilde and Franz were danced by Erica de la O and Kristopher Wojtera. De la O delighted the audience with her typical clean footwork, effortless extension and lissom arms. It is always fun to see Wojtera exercise his comedic acting, and Franz offers those opportunities. The choreography foregrounds Wojtera’s precise technique.

Swanhilde’s friends (Kateryna Sellers, Emily Reinking O’Dell, Helen Daigle, Ashley Thursby, Jordan Martin and Christy Corbitt Miller) were charming throughout, dancing with brightness and elegance, and embracing the more pantomimic action of stealing into Coppélius’ workshop.

Franz’s friends (Mark Krieger, Brandon Ragland, Benjamin Wetzel, Phillip Vellinov, Rob Morrow and Ryan Stokes) danced with elan, particularly their first variation in act I, in which Krieger’s and Vellinov’s elevation was impressive. The Germantown citizens, danced by the balance of the company and trainees, filled the stage with energy and charm. The traditional mazurka, adapted to suggest more of a folk or country dance typical of Kentucky, was executed with verve and precision.

Although the ballet is titled Coppélia, we typically see little of this doll. In act I, Curran and Heustis introduce some fun with the perception of whether the girl/doll moves in the window, employing technology to create illusions.  

Her inventor, Dr. Coppélius, is played by Harald Uwe Kern. This character will feel familiar to those for whom The Nutcracker is an annual tradition — Coppélia’s story also comes from the pen of E.T.A. Hoffman. In this version, the character is much more fleshed out, and Kern is fabulous as the eccentric and lonely dollmaker.  

It is lovely to watch what initially appears to be a comedic old man, easy to make fun of, develop into the older person apprehensive to walk the night streets alone for fear of thugs. His realization at the end of act II that his precious doll is, in fact, only a doll is heartbreaking; his grief is a metaphor for all the broken bodies that the impending war will bring.

Before the heartbreak, though, is the centerpiece of Coppélia — the discovery of the workshop.

Once Swanhilde finds the key to its door, it’s only a matter of time before the girls pluck up the courage to find out who is their apparent competitor, the girl in the window. The oversize dolls in the workshop are played by Wetzel, Stokes, Shelby Shenkman, Lexa Daniels, Eduard Forehand, Justin Michael Hogan and Krieger. For much of act II, they are entirely still, and kudos to each of them for that skill, which enhances the girls’ discoveries of (and the audience’s delight in) the mechanisms which bring them into action.

A special call out goes to Krieger, whose "Unfinished Doll" is a wonder of apparent double-jointedness. De La O’s impersonation of a doll is delightfully cheeky, and she becomes alive in a way that completely seduces Coppélius into believing that his magic works.

The way in which the girls discover that their competitor is only a doll, and the inclusion of Coppélius’ book of magic, echo the Bolshoi Ballet’s storyline of act II more than American ballet companies typically do.

It is in act III that Curran departs most from the typical storyline of this ballet.

Structurally, I missed the return of Dr. Coppélius, and I wish a reason would be found to reincorporate his character into this version of act III, even with the traditional reasons being excised from this storyline. Curran retains the celebration of marriage, with the weddings of Swanhilde and Franz and those of their friends, though the ending is tinged with the sadness of wartime goodbyes.

Interpolated into this production are two new characters. Dawn, a vaudeville sensation (Leigh Anne Albrechta) is smuggled into the celebrations by some of the neighborhood young men. It is a charming variation, but feels like it belongs more to a stag night, before a wedding, than at a celebration.

We also return to the tropes of the girls not wanting their now-husbands distracted by other women, which we saw in act I with the doll at the window. It’s an interesting framing device, but on opening night it felt redundant.  

The Camp Taylor nurse was danced exquisitely by Natalia Ashikhmina, and the audience was stilled by its intensity and its resonance of death and suffering. This character is clearly central to the story Curran is telling, but I wonder about its placement in the sequence of act III; closer to the end, after Swanhilde and Franz’s pas de deux, could have more of an emotional impact on them and the audience.

This production is the first after the Louisville Ballet’s announcement of their major anonymous gift. If it is emblematic of what that infusion of funds can bring to Louisville audiences, we are in for some treats.

The Louisville Orchestra was conducted by Charles Barker, who brings significant international experience for ballet. Original scenic and costume designs were created for the Louisville Ballet specifically, and by Louisville-based artists. And the performance featured new choreography, which is the lifeblood of the ballet today and into the future.