New York City Ballet; Coppelia at Saratoga Springs

As I write this, New York City Ballet is finishing their last performance of the Saratoga Springs Summer Season at the outdoor Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Included in the season this year were Serenade, Apollo, Coppelia, Mozartiana,Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.2, Varied Trio (what a boring title), Principia (music by Sufjan Stevens), The Runaway (choreography by Kyle Abraham), and This Bitter Earth (choreography by Christopher Wheeldon).

Last night, my students from Brant Lake Dance Camp and I attended their performance of Coppelia.  Thoughts below:

New York CIty Ballet Coppelia

All NYCB photos by Paul Kolnik

First off, we are in the midst of a heatwave. Kudos to the dancers and musicians for simply not passing out, especially the male corps of Franz’s friends who had to wear knee high boots, long black pants, long sleeved shirts, a jacket over that, and a hat. I would have been dead and I didn’t have to do a single cabriole.

Just a random thought- perhaps because this story ballet centers on a dollmaker’s creation, tons of little girls in the audience were toting around dolls at the show. Can you imagine if everyone brought themed-memorabilia to performances?

Swan Lake: bring poultry. Live or butchered. Having a Trader Joe’s pack of trimmed chicken breasts in your lap for the ballet really helps me get into the spirit, I always say.

“Take me to the Ballet!”

Let’s talk the stars first. I can’t imagine a better Swanilda than Megan Fairchild. Of course Swanilda is going to be charming, playful, a bit of a brat even. This is evident with the exaggerated sassy stomping about and teasing of Dr. Coppelius in the second act. But Fairchild found these characteristics within the steps and particularly the music. I’ve never seen a Swanilda with more lightening fast petite allegro who could also play with suspension in balances. With Fairchild, there is no separation between the dancing and the acting moments of ballet, which is good because there is so much pantomime in Coppelia.

Side note- a lot of my students didn’t know the story and there was no plot synopsis in the program. They had no clue that pointing at the left hand means ‘will you marry me?’ in ballet talk. And I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t know why they are shaking and listening to stalks of wheat in act 1.

Supposedly, there is a superstition that if you listen to a piece of wheat while shaking it and you hear a bell, you are dating the person you will marry.

Swanilda doesn’t hear a bell when shaking the wheat at Franz, hence the drama. Clearly they aren’t destined to be together. Or wheat just isn’t actually a music instrument….

New York CIty Ballet Coppelia

“No, I don’t need to go to the mental institution! The wheat says I’m fine!”

My point is, without the synopsis, how are people supposed to understand these gestures and customs? I have recently done some research with a arts-advocate who makes audio breakdowns of what is happening during musical theater performances for the blind. I move to make a similar optional earpiece with live streaming of me doing plot-commentary during ballets. Wouldn’t that be great? I could do all of the voices.

Anthony Huxley was a very nice Franz. He didn’t make his rendition as arrogant as I’ve seen, or as buffoonish. He was likeable and seemed deserving of Swanilda this way. I also really liked those multiple double tours to second in his variation.

If these two were high school stereotypes he was the likeable but not the smartest quarterback of the football team while she was the head of the drama club. Wait, isn’t that the plot of Glee?

I am not sure why there was no mention of the Czardas or Mazurka in the program. I thought at first they were cutting it to shorten the ballet. The music is great, but neither dance advances the plot. And this was a three hour ballet, starting at 8 pm. Some odd choices here.

I also strongly disliked the choreography of both of these selections. Neither were traditional, the mazurka did not have an actual mazurka to be found, and the czardas looked more like a modern-class leg swing exercise than the usual walking pattern. I can only guess that Balanchine was trying to separate his own choreography from his Russian roots, but I for one, missed that awesome coupe chug series in the fast section of the czardas. What I saw was well danced, but I didn’t like how much rounding of the upper back was used and I missed more of the traditional steps like the partnered cabrioles commonly found in character dances.

I’m just going to say it, the friends were a mess. Granted, this was crazy choreography. Sissone on pointe at ridiculous pace, all kinds of grande allegro pirouettes set to music best used for petite allegro, and I felt that the aesthetic of extension in almost every movement for these eight ladies just made them, as they inevitably fell behind or weren’t together, look weak, spastic, or tired. It wasn’t just the fast moments either. The nice slow ballone in act 1 could have bee a nice change of pace and moment of clarity for the group, but the leg height was different in each group of four and they weren’t together. To be fair, I think this was a mix of not enjoying the choreography, a lack of coaching in getting them together, and execution. I’m sure that each dancer is fantastic individually, but here in this group and overly big choreography for the music, it didn’t work.

I can only guess that they weren’t supposed to be walking on the same leg in the line while sneaking into the workshop, but it just didn’t look like it was choreographed at all with the randomized timing. Some of these silly moments that still retain dance elements like a strong pique onto the same leg with a line of dancers, is what made me fall in love with comedy ballets so I am particularly sad to see them wasted.

There were four dolls, an astronomer, an acrobat, a juggler, and a fortune teller. It must really stink to see that cast list come out if you’re the acrobat. None of the other dolls do anything besides waddle about or pretend to look through a telescope or play with a toy (actually, that juggling toy was really cool. I’m not sure how they did that). The acrobat, instead has to sit for half the act then get up and do about six full toe-touch or center split jumps in a row. And then sit for the rest of the act. Major kudos to dancer Kennard Henson whose jumps were spectacular, beyond a full split, each time. My students couldn’t stop talking about this and all of them want to be the acrobat doll in our ‘works in progress’ performance next week.

A small note on the set- it was the creepiest workshop I’ve ever seen. Dr Coppelius had a a cabinet full of different white masks or faces. It kind of reminded me of the Hall of Faces from Game of Thrones. And yes, that means that I loved it.

NYCB Coppelia

A girl has no face.. I’ll just borrow one from that cabinet back there

Act 2 was everything it should be and Fairchild’s rendition of the Scottish variation was particularly enjoyable. I really loved watching someone with feet as shapely and arched as hers in the flexed moments and she was the least delicate of any Swanilda I’ve seen in the flat-footed moments. A lot of women still play this part as charming rather than aggressive and it reads more feminine, as if she is still part doll. Fairchild truly brought this solo to life.

The set for act three with designs by Rouben Ter-Arutunian for act three is simply stunning with large, golden bells hang overhead like festive, musical chandeliers. The NYCB production of act 3 was especially sweet as the corps for the waltz of the hours was a cast of about 24 children in peachy, pink sparkling costumes. Their formations were crystal clear, the port de bras together, and each little pas de basque executed with pointed toes and energy. They were a delight.

New York CIty Ballet Coppelia

I did not care for the soloist in the waltz. To be clear, it was danced very well (I think there was an announcement saying the part was danced by Olivia Boisson rather than Sarah Villwock, but don’t quote me on that). But, I didn’t like the flashy brilliance of Balanchines’ style in the midst of this lush, romantic music.

I also did not like the choreography for Dawn, danced by Lauren King, one of my current favorites in the company. She was fantastic, and the pique menege at the end was radiant, but again, the music seems so light and pleasant the lines of the choreography seemed ill-fittingly sharp, even with King’s fluid upper body. And really Balanchine, do you have to put those stupid jete-with-arms in second with flexed wrists, palms out- in everything? This isn’t prodigal son.

I really hated prayer. Again, Emilie Gerrity danced fabulously. Her bourree were as smooth and quick as ripples on water but again, she looked too sharp for this quiet, reverent music. I almost don’t want to see the energy in the movement in Prayer. She didn’t seem innocent in the way this music seems to convey. Again with those jetes and flexed wrists. The choreography is to blame, it asked for this more adult, direct approach to movement. But it also was the most shockingly easy variation I’ve seen. She only had to do one penchee at the very end, no long sustained arabesque balances, no promenades, no relevelent devant fouette to super-slow penchee…can you tell I’m bitter about this solo? I had to do all of those steps when I did this at age fourteen and was too stupid to realize then how hard it was. If I had to do it again now, I would combust on the spot. Because of this experience, I expect a lot from the choreography for a NYCB dancer. I don’t think Gerrity could have done more with the role, the choreography itself was just too boring, too aggressive.

My second favorite performance of the night behind Fairchild was Sara Adams as Spinner. She was dazzling in bright allegro and her arabesque toe hops were incredible on both sides. Here, the flash of Balanchine lines enhanced the punchy music. I did not like the red costume though. In this country-side story ballet, a Spanish princess complete with glittering tiara seemed very out-of-place even if it did stand out against the backdrop and was pretty to look at.

I’ve never seen Discord and War before. I didn’t like it and I felt bad for everyone trying to jump and turn with those long spears. I wonder if those cast in this variation all got unevenly buff in their spear arms. I didn’t like their Roman God of War costumes. Who invited Brun Hilda to the wedding?

NYCB Coppelia

Congrats on your wedding! This is an open-bar reception, right?”

The Four Jesters were clean with their almost entirely cannon variation. It was easy on the eyes and fun for the ears with the bells on their ankles.

The pas de deux and variations were beautifully done. I did notice that Huxley dropped Fairchild on that last lift in the pas. Most noticeable in this trio was how ungodly slow her variation was for the first half. I mean, it was impressive how sustained Fairchild was in the challenging pointe work but it made the isolated notes of the music so disjointed that the melody was no longer enjoyable. And then when the conductor sped the orchestra up for the second half she seemed like she was chasing the pique instead of right on top of it.

New York CIty Ballet Coppelia

Despite some qualms with the choreography not serving the music, storytelling, or humor, the performance was overall a true delight to my first-timer students and an old salty veteran like me.

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