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When David Nixon asked me to stage a Coppélia for BalletMet Columbus, I believed it would be a relatively simple task. I was very familiar with the ballet, from the Royal Ballet and Enrique Martinez stagings, and it seemed that there would be a relatively comfortable amount of time for completing the work. How different life looks from a distance! When it came to the reality of casting, I realized that we didn't have the configuration of dancers in the company to perform the classic version of Coppélia, nor did the costumes that we were renting exactly follow suit, either. Early on I had decided that I wanted to work with Robert Post, a most inspiring and wonderful artist; I believed he would make the ideal Dr. Coppélius. Unfortunately, he was already booked to perform at the same time as our Coppélia was to be presented, but he agreed to help me with the staging of the work. His quick appraisal of the ballet's previous stagings confirmed my suspicion that some careful changes could make it more entertaining, while preserving from the original work the essence that has perpetuated Coppélia's popularity over the many years.
For me the starting point had to be the music - a decision both philosophical and practical. Delibes' structure is very well thought out; the thematic material flows easily from one section to another, and that has played a large part in the continuing success of Coppélia. And of course before we could rehearse, we had to edit the music. The modern technology of the computer allowed me to "cut and paste" at will - and to know instantly if I had made a big mistake! If so, a mouse click would return the music to its original form. Working that way with the music allowed me to concentrate on the flow of the story, and to address those areas that Robert and I had already discussed. The process was enjoyable, and it progressed quickly.
Apart from shaving some repetition from the music (for instance, it seems less appropriate to have a lengthy overture for a performance using recorded music), the only area I really tinkered with was Act 3. The story as such finishes at the end of Act 2, but - unlike The Sleeping Beauty's final-act divertissements, which are well known classics - the divertissements of Coppélia's Act 3 are not familiar in any standard version. In fact, some recent productions have gone as far as to delete this act completely. To condense the overall length of BalletMet's production, I sought to eliminate the second intermission, and that led to such practical considerations as how to change the stage settings and provide time for the dancers to change costumes.
I settled on using the stage area in front of the proscenium arch to present the "Prayer" variation, which I believe makes a reflective transition between the dramatic close of Act 2 and the jolly, happy dancing of Act 3. I had already decided that the dancer who portrayed the relatively non-dancing role of the mother in one cast would get to dance this divertissement in the other cast. As I faced choreographing this dance I thought 'why not make it a dance for the mother?' While Swanilda has been detained overnight in Dr. Coppélius's house, her mother must be anxious about the upcoming wedding; the music for "Prayer" lends itself to this concept, and so it was to be. I also liked the idea that the villagers, amidst their preparations for the wedding, would be somewhat shocked to see Swanilda emerge from Dr. Coppélius's house dressed as Coppélia. As a bonus, this solved the problem of getting Franz and Swanilda into new, Act 3 costumes without an intermission: their friends would then dance while the lovers were sent off to change for their wedding.
As originally written, the music that's often used when Dr. Coppélius interrupts the wedding celebration leads directly into the music for the pas de deux. I decided to keep that connection as written. Surely Swanilda and Franz's pas de deux celebrating their joy would immediately follow their wedding; they wouldn't be waiting in the wings until the others have all had their dances.
After a number of preliminary discussions, Robert and I believed we were on the same page as to what we wished to achieve in Coppélia, but we both needed to get into the studio to work with the dancers. That was in May, though - and it was to be at least three months before we could start. We agreed that the best way to proceed would be for me to lay out the broad strokes of the ballet, and for him to work with that material, making suggestions and developing the dancers' characters.
To feel comfortable with choreography, you must practice it continually. As it had been a few years since I last choreographed a ballet, I endured many sleepless nights leading up to and during the creative process. Still, I was able to produce the majority of the ballet in two weeks, and that allowed me to thereafter arrive at the dance studio better rested and ready to coach the dancers in the choreography and in their interpretations.
Some may not rank it at the pinnacle of classical ballet, but Coppélia presents many unique challenges to the dancers, especially the ballerina role of Swanilda. One of her most difficult solos comes almost immediately after the curtain goes up, and it is she who dances throughout the second act, and then returns for the Act 3 pas de deux and variations. She must posses a strong technique and stamina, and she must carry the performance dramatically - and understand comic timing.
It has been a pleasure to discover new treasures in this classic ballet, and to work on it with Robert Post and the BalletMet dancers. I trust that the audiences will find as much reward in the performance of this production as I have found in creating it.
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Coppélia - Synopsis of the Ballet
Act 1 - It's morning as Dr. Coppélius returns home. Nearby, Swanilda kisses her mother and her father, the Burgomeister, as they set off for the day. Swanilda sees Coppélia reading on the balcony of Dr. Coppélius' house, but fails to attract her attention.
Swanilda's fiancé, Franz, comes with flowers. Not finding her, he's about to leave when he notices Coppélia - who surprises him by dropping her book, standing up and blowing him a kiss. Swanilda, seeing Franz seemingly blowing a kiss back to Coppélia, is angry that he's flirting with another girl the day before they're to be married. Villagers, arriving to begin wedding preparations, interrupt the argument. The Burgomeister, explaining the wedding details, is concerned to see that Swanilda and Franz are at odds. Suddenly a disturbance in his house propels a startled Dr. Coppélius into the village square! Not wishing to join the villagers, he returns to his house. The Burgomeister suggests that Swanilda "listen to the wheat:" if she hears anything when she shakes it, then Franz is her true love. Annoyed at hearing nothing, she leaves to dance with her friends. Franz pursues Swanilda, trying to draw her attention, but she won't acknowledge him.
As evening falls, the Burgomeister dances with his wife; eventually everyone joins in. Franz tries again to endear himself to Swanilda, but to no avail.
Dr. Coppélius checks to be sure the village square is empty before leaving his house and his beloved Coppélia, but he's surprised by youths who tease him; he chases them away with his stick. Swanilda comes out of her house to help him, but he's irritable and leaves, pushing her aside. Swanilda notices that Coppélius has dropped his front-door key. She gathers her friends, and they enter the mysterious house to find out what goes on inside - and speak to Coppélia.
Not finding Swanilda at home, Franz is about to leave when he spots Coppélia's book. Dr. Coppélius returns, searches for his key, and notices that his door is open. He enters the house to investigate. Franz gets a ladder and climbs to the balcony, intending to return the book to Coppélia.
Act 2 - Inside Dr. Coppélius' dark, spooky house, the girls search for Coppélia. They find her behind a curtain - and are shocked to learn that she's only a mechanical doll. They laugh to think that Franz should have fallen for a mannequin. They soon discover other dolls, and they have fun with some of them. Dr. Coppélius chases the girls from his house - all except Swanilda, left behind the curtain that also hides Coppélia.
Franz arrives, hoping to find Coppélia, and the Doctor confronts him. As Franz explains that he wants to meet the attractive girl, Dr. Coppélius gets an idea. He offers Franz a drink (in which he has put a sleeping powder). Franz falls asleep, and Dr. Coppélius begins his plan - he will instill Franz's life force in Coppélia. He is thrilled when Coppélia does come to life! Finally he has someone real to share his lonely life. The truth, though, is that it is Swanilda, pretending to be Coppélia in order to rescue Franz. Sounds of activity outside announce the morning. Swanilda rouses the drowsy Franz, reveals to Coppélius that she's not the doll, and escapes from the house with Franz.
The villagers are surprised when Swanilda (dressed as Coppélia) and Franz stumble from Coppélius' house -they're about to be married, but they're not dressed for the ceremony. They rush off to prepare. Finally the two are married, but Dr. Coppélius interrupts, demanding compensation for the damage Swanilda caused. She offers her dowry, but her father intercedes to pay. The village joins Franz and Swanilda in celebrating their wedding. Even Dr. Coppélius can share their joy!
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The History of the Ballet
Choreography: Arthur Saint-Léon
Music: Léo Delibes
Libretto: Charles Nuitter and Arthur Saint-Léon (after E.T.A. Hoffmann)
Scenery: Charles Cambon, Édouard Despléchin, and Antoine Levastre
Costumes: Alfred Albert
Premiere: May 25, 1870 at the Théâtre Impérial de l'Opéra (Paris Opera)
Guiseppina Bozacchi (Swanilda) Eugénie Fiocre (Franz)
Francois-Édouard Dauty (Dr. Coppélius)
Coppélia is probably the best-known comedy ballet, and certainly it's the most often performed - but it's much more than just a funny piece. The premiere was attended by the leading figures of Parisian society. A breakaway from the sad, Romantic ballets of the day, Coppélia was an immediate success with its humor, vigorous national dances and brightness. It was created at a time when Paris was slipping from its position as the dance capital of the world, and the popularity of ballet was declining. Coppélia was the last hoorah for the Paris Opéra before it fell into decay.
Although Coppélia's roots were in the out-of-fashion Romantic movement, the ballet was forward-looking, and it laid some of the groundwork for the Classical ballet that was yet to come. Coppélia has the robust peasants typical of the Romantic ballet, but no ethereal creatures, just an earthly, mechanical doll. The artistic cohesiveness of the work and its incorporation of national dances, its technical virtuosity and divertissements - all foreshadowed the Classical ballet that would follow.
Despite the success of Coppélia at its premiere, only 18 performances were initially given. The Prussian army invaded France shortly after the premiere, and the siege of Paris prevented performances. Eventually, though, more than 500 performances of Coppélia were given at the Opéra alone, and it was thus the most-often-performed ballet at that theater.
Impressed by the success of their ballet La Source (1866), Émile Perrin, the director of the Paris Opéra, asked Charles Nuitter and Arthur Saint-Léon to collaborate again. Nuitter, an archivist at the Paris Opéra, worked on the libretto for Coppélia with choreographer Saint-Léon. Leo Delibes, who had also composed some of the music for La Source, was appointed to compose the music. Little is known about how the collaborators worked together, but it's likely that Nuitter suggested E.T.A. Hoffmann's doll story, and that the idea was quickly agreed to. Coppélia is derived from Der Sandmann (1815), but Nuitter stayed away from the darker aspects of the original story and focused instead on the kind of comedy that had been successful in another ballet, La Fille mal gardée. In Hoffmann's original story, the doll actually comes to life using the spirit withdrawn from Franz; in the ballet, Swanilda impersonates the doll in order to save Franz from Dr.Coppélius' experiments.
Saint-Léon had been principal dancer and ballet master of Russia's Imperial Ballet, and he was the son of a well-respected ballet master. He was also a talented musician. In his ballet Le Violon de Diable he demonstrated that ability - by accompanying himself on the violin as he danced his own choreography! For Coppélia he created a variety of solo and ensemble dances with a wide variety of styles, including a range of national dances, notably the first Hungarian czardas to be presented in a ballet.
Nuitter had thought to cast Léontine Beaugrand as Swanilda, but Perrin did not consider her "good box office," so Saint-Léon imported a protégée of his, the German Adèle Grantzow, at the time a star of the Bolshoi in Moscow, for the leading role. Because Saint-Léon was dividing his time between France and Russia, the ballet's production period was somewhat protracted: it was in rehearsal for some three years. Although Coppélia finally took shape in the summer of 1869, the premiere was delayed until 1870 because Saint-Léon needed to return to Russia. Perhaps the delays allowed for some tightening of what might have been weak spots in the ballet, but they also meant that Mme. Grantzow would not appear in the ballet. Due to an injury, she was compelled to return home before the premiere. Injuries - the worst affliction for a dancer - were to plague her for the rest of her career. She died after a leg was amputated.
A search of Parisian dance schools was undertaken, and a talented Italian student was found, Guiseppina Bozacchi. She was 15 years old at the beginning of rehearsals and 16 by the premiere. She impressed the critics with her personality and lively toe work "The title of child prodigy should be devised for her, had it not been abused in so many other cases … she is a graceful and witty actress; add to that a well-proportioned, dainty little body, and she bids fair to have the prettiest features in the world. If she fulfils all her first promises, she will be a power in her profession," wrote the critic of Le Ménestrel. Mlle. Bozacchi danced the part at eighteen performances before war precluded any others. Sadly, she contracted a fever during the siege of Paris, and died on her seventeenth birthday, in 1870.
When performances began again, the role of Swanilda went to Léontine Beaugrand, who triumphed in the part and was hailed by Théophile Gauthier as the successor to ballerina Carlotta Grisi. There could have been no greater tribute - Gauthier, in his total admiration for Grisi, had created the masterpiece Giselle as a tribute to her.
The role of Franz was played by a woman en travestie. This was quite the style at the time - the wealthy male patrons of the ballet (particularly members of the Jockey Club, who were very influential) were not the least bit interested in seeing men on stage. Eugénie Fiorce specialized in such roles (she is said to have looked fetching in men's clothing), and was the first to portray Franz. The tradition of Franz's being danced by a woman held at the Paris Opera until the 1950s.
Delibes' masterful music for the ballet is often cited as a key reason for the popularity Coppélia has always enjoyed. Delibes blended classical composition with folkloric, dance-music styles (Coppélia is the first ballet to contain a czardas, a complicated Hungarian folk dance). The trend of the time toward nationalism in music probably influenced the composer's decision to include a number of national dances in the ballet score. Delibes had traveled to Hungary with Jules Massenet to transcribe folk music, and the experience contributed to the authenticity of his "ethnic" compositions.
Choreographer Saint-Léon was also a folklore enthusiast; he sent ideas about the music for Coppélia to Delibes, along with popular songs he heard in his travels. But one piece of music (it appears in Coppélia as the Thème Slav No. 6) that Saint-Leon believed to be a folk song turned out to be a composition by the Polish composer, Stanislaw Moniuszko. When that was discovered, Delibes acknowledged the real source.
The work for Coppélia was musically advanced: the melodies were more lyrical than those used in prior ballet compositions, and Delibes built on the use of leitmotif to identify character and atmosphere, a practice begun by Adam (with whom Delibes studied) in Giselle. Swanilda has a bright and graceful waltz, Dr. Coppélius a dry counterpoint, and a canonic device is applied to the music for his doll Coppélia. Franz has two themes, the first four notes of each sharing the same melodic shape. There was no solo male variation written for the Franz, as the role was originally portrayed by a woman. For the same reason there was no standard pas de deux in the original version of the score; the pas de deux that is now considered standard came about when the score was re-arranged for Marius Petipa's 1884 production in Russia.
Despite Coppélia's initial success and durability, its third act has presented a problem for subsequent choreographers: the lovers' story is nearly complete at the end of Act 2, when Franz and Swanilda recognize their respective follies. Some have felt that a grand pas de deux was needed, in what was to become the Classical tradition, to show the maturation and control of the main characters (although it's unknown what form that dance would have taken when both characters were portrayed by women); and this had to be framed by a series of divertissements. But the original Festival of the Bell divertissements were considered too long - and extraneous to the plot. The dances were at first shortened and then cut completely. Subsequent productions have attempted a variety of solutions, with some going so far as to omit Act 3 altogether.
It was in Russia that the first true grand pas de deux involving a man dancing as Franz was used. Interestingly, there was a pas de deux in the 1887 Boston production, but it was not Franz, but the festival bell ringer who danced with Swanilda - and his character is no longer in the ballet.
The fantastical elements in Coppélia reside within only the mechanical figures; the people are very human, and - somewhat unusually for a ballet - there is a happy ending! Most of the ballet's drama centers on the character of Doctor Coppélius. Over the many decades his portrayal has ranged from a dark sorcerer to an eccentric, and somewhat ridiculous, old man. He's been seen as lonely, a man of science who has, perhaps, a warped idea of reality. Paradoxically, while this character is willing to remove the life from a young man in order to instill life in a doll, he's generally seen as a comic figure.
Franz is a far less complicated and two-dimensional character - as, unfortunately, were most male protagonists of traditional classical ballet.
The popularity of Coppélia soon spread to Russia - and to Denmark, which had a strong tradition of men's dancing. While the Danish production stayed close to the story of the original, it focused less on the female dancers; Swanilda was the only one to dance on pointe. This version, staged by Hans Beck, was very popular with dancers and audiences, but it was criticized because of cuts made in the music.
In 1871 Joseph Hansen presented Coppélia in Brussels, and in 1882 it was presented at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Most productions today are based on the well documented 1884 Russian version of the ballet by Marius Petipa; it's thought to have followed closely the Saint-Léon original. Enrico Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov revised the production 10 years later, and elements of their version probably survive to this day.
On March 11, 1887, Coppélia was first presented in the United States by the American Opera Company at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, as staged by Mamert Biberyan. The first Russian-based production in the United Stats was the 1910 debut performance of Anna Pavlova at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Other notable American productions include Enrique Martinez' three-act version staged for American Ballet Theatre in 1968, with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn (the version previously seen at BalletMet), and the one created by George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova for New York City Ballet that opened in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1974. Patricia McBride was Swanilda and Helgi Tomasson was Franz. Balanchine added music from La Source and Sylvia to allow for more dancing by Franz.
A one-act version of Coppélia was seen in England at the Empire Theatre, November 8, 1884, but it was 36 years before a full-length version reached London, presented at the same theater in 1906 with Danish ballerina Adeline Genée as Swanilda. Her uncle, Alexander Genée, who had originally staged the work in Munich in 1896, staged this production. In 1933 the Sadler's Wells Ballet presented Coppélia as staged by Nicholas Sergeyev, who followed the Petipa-Enrico Cecchetti model.
In 1975 Roland Petit created his Coppélia, casting himself as Doctor Coppélius - who became the main character. He placed the work around 1880, in a garrison town where the old Coppélius becomes transformed into a young premier danseur - the better to seduce the young women he loves.
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Chronology of Selected Productions of Coppélia
November 29, 1871
Joseph Hansen after Saint-Léon
Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels
February 5, 1882
Moscow Bolshoi Theater
Joseph Hansen after Saint-Léon
November 8, 1884
One act version staged by A. Bertrand after Saint-Léon
Empire Theatre, London
November 25, 1884
Bolshoi Theater, St. Petersburg
March 11, 1887
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
February 17, 1894
Enrico Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov
Maryinski Theater, St. Petersburg
January 26, 1896
La Scala, Milan
December 27, 1896
G. Glasemann and Hans Beck
Royal Danish Ballet, Copenhagen
November 21, 1896
Restaged at the Empire Theatre, London, May 14, 1906
March 21, 1933
Nicholas Sergeyev after Petipa and Cecchetti
Sadler's Wells Ballet, London
October 22, 1942
Simon Semenoff after Saint-Léon
Ballet Theatre, New York
August 31, 1956
Harold Lander after Glasemann and Beck
London Festival Ballet, London
December 24, 1968
American Ballet Theatre, Brooklyn Academy, New York
Reconstruction of original Saint-Léon version by Pierre Lacotte
Paris Opéra Ballet
George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova after Petipa and Cecchetti
New York City Ballet, Saratoga Springs
September 18, 1975
Ballet de Marseille, Marseille.
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Charles-Louis-Etienne Nuitter was born in Paris April 24, 1828. He became well known as a writer and librettist, working with Offenbach on many operettas and vaudevilles. He was also in demand for writing the scenarios for ballets, including Meranté's Les Jumeaux de Bergame (1866), Gretna Green (1873), La Source (1866), Coppélia (1870) and Namouna (for Petipa, in1882).
Nuitter died in Paris on February 24, 1899.
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Selected World Events of 1868-70, the period of the creation of Coppélia
U.S. President Andrew Johnson impeached
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women
Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
The French Impressionist style developed
Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürenberg
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 1
Game of badminton devised
Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional U.S. baseball club
Armour opened a meat packing plant in Chicago
Red River Rebellion in Canada
Ulysses S. Grant inaugurated as U.S. President
Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore published
Frank Lloyd Wright born
First postcards introduced, in Austria
Franco-Prussian War began
Third Republic of France declared
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne published
Tchaikovsky fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet
Wagner's Die Walküre premiered
Robert E. Lee died
John Rockefeller founded Standard Oil Company
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