Big-time dance in a big-time town

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 22, 2011
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Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in San Francisco<br>Ballet's <i>Coppelia.</i> Photo: Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in San Francisco
Ballet's Coppelia. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Big-time dance-theater has been filling the houses this past weekend, and audiences have responded with emotional roars that make it clear: these spectacles have hit home. Ballets as different as the classic life-affirming Coppelia (at the Opera House) and the "lost-out-here-in-the-stars" works presented by Nederlands Dans Theater (at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley) demonstrated huge theatrical power without uttering a single word. Meanwhile at the Novellus Theater in YBCA, our contemporary dance company ODC/SF was delivering multi-valenced, big-scale modern dance, and celebrating their 40th anniversary while they were at it.

Coppelia is the greatest ballet comedy ever, and has been around for over 100 years. It's a deceptively light, bright, and sparkling battle of the sexes, with a big idea thrown in: there's a mad scientist (Dr. Coppelius) who's trying to create life, and it takes a woman to show the old fool where life really comes from. The story it's based on was written in 1817, the same year as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which approaches the same theme from a darker angle.

Central Europe, Baroque city square. Swanilda, our heroine, is a strong-minded creature (think Madonna) channeling the life force. She's quick to stamp her foot and say "No!," but who's got time for niceties? The crazy professor is trying to steal the vitality out of her boyfriend and infuse it into the mechanical doll he's created, and bring the doll to life.

San Francisco Ballet's new production is a restaging of the one George Balanchine put together back in the 1970s, to star the big-personality, geeky ballerina Patricia McBride and her partner Helgi Tomasson (yes, the same HT who now heads SF Ballet). McBride was a scream in the role, Tomasson adorable. The ballet fused acting and dancing in ways New Yorkers had never seen, and was a hit from the start. Balanchine added fabulous folk dances and a new wedding divertissement to the work, recreated from memories of dancing Swanilda by the great star of the Ballets Russes Alexandra Danilova, "whose dancing was like champagne."

Dr. Coppelius has created a statue of surpassing beauty and parked her on the balcony of his mansion on the town square, where she attracts the attention of our girl and her boyfriend, who falls for her charms, becomes obsessed with her, tries and fails to get her attention, and the more he invests the sicker he becomes, aching for her kiss. So he sneaks into the house to make love to her – while at the same time, Swanilda has decided to get to the bottom of this and has also sneaked into the house. Once there, she realizes the beauty is just a doll, takes the doll's place in the chair, and when the scientist/magician tries his potent spells for transferring life from the BF to the doll, Swanilda pretends to come to life, in a scene that is the fons et origo of all the great movie-scenes where some lifeless creature begins to stir in a cobwebbed setting.

This scene is such powerful theater that it has been staged by itself countless times by troupes who cannot mount a full production, starting with the impoverished Ballets Russes dancers caught between the World Wars touring the Americas. Danilova must have played this role hundreds of times to farmers and their wives, as well as to the great audiences in the major cities. It's surefire theater.

Perhaps that's why Willam Christensen, when he had the chance to mount a full-length ballet for our company (then called the San Francisco Opera Ballet), did Coppelia first; that production, in 1939, was the first complete version by an American company. The new production, with lovely costumes and scenery by Roberta Guidi di Bagno, is shared with Pacific Northwest Ballet, and should stay in the repertory for a long time.

The dancers put it over the top from the get-go; after Maria Kochetkova's first dance, inviting the doll to get acquainted and "let's dance!," you could tell the show's a hit. Gennadi Nedvigin, in Tomasson's role, was even more adorable and bigger in personality than Swanilda, the kind of really cute boy who gets away with murder because he's that cute – and good god, can he dance!

I'm looking forward to seeing Vanessa Zahorian in the role as well, since she commands a vivid steeliness that's likely to reveal more of the incorrigible female power that resides in the role and makes the fecundity celebrated in the last act, with its huge raft of children dancers, necessary to the ballet. The kids were staggeringly good, and the finale built to a colossal head of fizziness and glee. For a good time, check out Coppelia, through this Sunday at the Opera House.

Warp speed

Nederlands Dans Theater made us feel very lonely in Zellerbach Hall. NDT evokes private, unnamable states through moves that seem pathological. They transform ballet into a mode that sinks into the floor, whirls like a tornado, or morphs into droid-like forms, and put the dance into a spectacle that uses high-tech to warp your field of vision. Their second piece, Silent Screen, made it impossible to tell if the dancers were actual people or merely images in a film being screened, when there were people; sometimes it looked like the view from a spacecraft, stars going by. It was a tour de force of new stagecraft. The first piece, by Jiri Kylian, never seen here before, showed tremendous invention in new moves, some very slow, others fast and turbulent, on a stage where the floor itself had been tilted. A half-naked man posed like Blake's Urizen and drew figures in sand in front of him. The dance looked like life going by.

Meantime ODC/SF is dancing downtown. I can't wait to see the recreation of Investigating Grace, which has been placed on the NEA's list of heritage works, performed with its new cast. Private Freeman, on whom it was made, has moved on to chamber works, but ODC dances big as all outdoors, and the new crew will make it theirs. Set to the Goldberg Variations, in Glenn Gould's original recording. Through March 27.