Cleveland Ballet – Coppélia
Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square
May 13-14, 2016
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
For Gladisa Guadalupe’s new Cleveland Ballet, the decision to hire Spanish choreographer Ramón Oller to create its very first story ballet was genius. The world-premiere of Oller’s re-envisioned Coppélia, May 13 at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre was just what Cleveland’s newest resident ballet company needed to advance its goals of becoming a force on the local dance scene and beyond.
The comic ballet, choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870 to music by composer Léo Delibes, is based on tales by E. T. A. Hoffmann and is about eccentric inventor Dr. Coppélius who makes life-size dancing dolls including his beloved Coppélia, and the mishaps that happen when local villagers mistake her for real.
Oller’s new 80-minute production began with him in the role of Dr. Coppélius, magically directing Coppélia (Elena Cvetkovich) in a contemporary dance solo that revealed the nature of Dr. Coppélius’ feelings for the doll and his Pinocchio-like obsession to make her real. From there the ballet’s storyline followed tradition with village lad Franz, danced by Spaniard Nicholas Montero of New York City’s Joffrey Ballet Concert Group, becoming enamored with Coppélia and threatening his relationship with his intended Swanilda, portrayed marvelously by Cleveland-area’s Lauren Stenroos.
The biggest difference in Oller’s choreography over other ballet versions was replacing much of the Saint-Léon’s (and later Marius Petipa’s) mazurkas and other folk dances with beefier and more technically challenging dancing for Cleveland Ballet’s compact troupe of four male/female couples. The vibrant choreography included for the men, lots of jumps and turns in the air, and for the women, rapid turns on pointe and leaps. Not only did Oller’s choreography sit well on the young troupe, it also breathed new life into an often stale ballet classic.
It was clear from the sparse set design of the façade of Dr. Coppélius house and little else, that Guadalupe and Cleveland Ballet Board Chairman Michael Krasnyansky chose to put their modest production budget as a startup company into the ballet’s dancing. It paid off. The company was well rehearsed performed the charming ballet with conviction.
The remainder of the ballet’s first act played out as it usually does with Franz’s eyes wandering toward Coppélia who sat in a balcony window, and Stenroos as Swanilda, deliciously pouting and rebuking his insincere apologies over it.
Oller’s somewhat slapstick choreography injected plenty of humor into the act which the young cast at times had trouble not telegraphing in bouts of forced acting. One perfectly timed and delivered moment however, saw Montero whip his leg in the air in a half circle just as Stenroos keenly ducked to avoid it.
After some festivities celebrating the engagement of Franz and Swanilda that included an obligatory dance featuring students from the School of Cleveland Ballet and its Youth Ballet Company (including a few talents we may see in the company in future), the first act ended with Dr. Coppélius dropping his house key after a scuffle with some village boys, and Swanilda finding it and she and her female companions entering Coppélius’ house to confront Coppélia. Not long after, Franz did the same via a ladder at the house’s balcony window.
As delightful as the ballet’s first act was, its second act proved even better.
Once in the house Swanilda and friends discovered a treasure trove of mechanical dolls, some costumed in the garb of other nations, while others looked like stitched dolls awaiting one. Accidently activated, the dolls danced for the girls’ amusement and also signaled Dr. Coppélius of their presence in his workshop. In quick order Coppélius chased all but Swanilda out. She, discovering Coppélia is a doll, pretends to be her. Franz arrives only to be cornered by Coppélius who drugs him and casts a spell to transfer his life force into Coppélia. After a clever series of duets and interactions between Oller and Stenroos pretending to be Coppélia, Dr. Coppélius’ plans go awry and the young couple escapes, leaving him in an emotional shamble.
The ballet’s finest moments came in a newly created fantasy scene (with lighting by Trad Burns) that followed, in which Coppélius dreamed of dancing with Coppélia and that all was forgiven between him Franz, Swanilda and the village folk. In it, Oller created a marvelous contemporary dance for Cvetkovich as Coppélia who danced it with feeling, and a passionate pas de deux for Montero and Stenroos filled with gracefully sweeping movement and arcing lifts that the pair adroitly executed. The cast’s other professional dancers then joined in a wedding celebration for Franz and Swanilda replete with nicely-crafted choreography to conclude the entertaining ballet.
The fantasy scene heralded the wonderful potential of this new Cleveland Ballet and left the audience wanting more. Kudos to Oller and cast, along with the inspired performances of Montero, Stenroos, Cvetkovich and dancers Victor Jarvis, Lüna Sayag and Jonathan Leonard.
With the success of Coppélia, Cleveland Ballet is sure to garner new fans of the company. And for those taking a wait and see approach toward the new company, wait no more.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.