During his relatively brief career, German author, composer, critic and jurist E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) penned stories that would subsequently provide inspiration for such influential productions as Offenbach's opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” and Tchaikovsky's ballet “The Nutcracker.”
He also provided the narrative for “Coppelia,” the tale of an inventor who creates a life-size dancing doll. Based on Hoffmann's stories “The Sandman” and “The Doll,” “Coppelia,” which features a masterful score by Leo Delibes, had its premiere in Paris on May 25, 1870.
“Coppelia,” which opens Oklahoma City Ballet's 2011-12 season this week, focuses on Franz, a male suitor who becomes so infatuated with Dr. Coppelius' doll that he ignores his true love, Swanhilda. She shows him the error of his ways by dressing as the doll and pretending to come to life. In the grand tradition of 19th century Romantic ballet, Franz and Swanhilda ultimately wed.
While “Coppelia” has been presented in many versions during its 141-year history, Robert Mills, the ballet company's artistic director, opted for a traditional production that hews closely to the original choreography by Arthur Saint-Leon. Mills and Jacob Sparso are sharing choreographic duties.
“When you're choreographing a new work, the sky's the limit because it's completely open to interpretation,” Mills said. “With a classic like ‘Coppelia,' you have to decide how true to the original you want to be.
“We researched the original choreography, and we're using as much of that as we could find intact. Jacob and I are putting our own version on it by paying homage to how the original production's dances would have looked stylistically.”
Regardless of the production, every choreographer faces the challenge of getting his dancers to convey the ballet's story line as efficiently and as convincingly as possible. To achieve that, Mills and Sparso devoted considerable rehearsal time to help the dancers with their characterizations.
“There are so many aspects of what has to be done in terms of the art,” Mills said. “If there's a story to be told, it's important to act it. You're concentrating on every move your body makes. If you're a male dancer, you're concentrating on your partner's needs. You have to be comfortable with every move you make so that the story gets past the orchestra pit into the audience.”
In addition to his choreographic duties, Mills is making a rare stage appearance as the doll maker in this production of “Coppelia.” It's a character role which means there is no dancing involved. Playing the eccentric doll maker also gives Mills a chance to try out his comedic skills.
While “Coppelia” deserves its status as a classical ballet, it's particularly noteworthy for its humorous elements.
The characters in “Coppelia” believe Coppelius' doll is real because its movements are so lifelike. That's a scenario that bears more than a few similarities to “Pinocchio.”
“Mistaken identity is classic comedy,” Mills said. “When Swanhilda breaks into the doll maker's closet, puts the doll's dress on and sits in her chair, she knows what's going on but the others don't.
“Think of all the romantic comedies that come out of Hollywood. The ideas of mistaken identity and (misplaced) jealousy still work, much like the situations in this 1870 ballet remain relevant today. ‘Coppelia' is ballet's greatest comedy.”