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Coppelia

Ballet Chicago

at the Shubert Theatre, April 5-9

Ballet Chicago has had a tumultuous year. After Hansel and Gretel premiered last spring with a deafening thud, the company lost its publicist, laid off its resident choreographer, and ruthlessly cut its staff and corps. The company's outlook improved slightly when it inherited the space and the student list of the respected Ellis-Duboulay School of Ballet last December--at least that was a potential source of income. But when Ballet Chicago's contract negotiations with dancers for the short 1995 season threatened to break down, many in the dance community began privately writing eulogies for the cash-strapped company. Adding spice to the stew were rumors this year that the Joffrey might move to town and the two dance companies might merge.

Despite it all Ballet Chicago has managed to stage Coppelia, a genuinely entertaining romantic comedy first produced in 1870 and based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann (the same fellow who penned The Nutcracker). Coppelia is to ballet what A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Importance of Being Earnest is to theater: true love, fickle hearts, mistaken identities, and quick wit work their way into this charming story about a giant doll who seemingly comes to life and steals the heart of a young villager named Franz. Not only is Franz's love blind, it's fickle--he's already offered his heart to Swanhilda, the village beauty. But as the story unfolds, she proves to be as clever as she is beautiful.

This version of the classic, choreographed in 1968 by Enrique Martinez and Dane La Fontsee and staged here by Basil Thompson of the Milwaukee Ballet, is surprisingly well done. The production isn't perfect, but it is a shining tribute to Ballet Chicago's resourcefulness, a textbook example of how ballet companies can survive financial difficulties. For this isn't just Ballet Chicago's Coppelia. It also belongs to Tulsa Ballet Theatre, Milwaukee Ballet Company, Richmond Ballet, and Oregon Ballet Theatre, which provided some of the more expensive elements of classical ballet: scenery and costumes. Tulsa Ballet's richly painted set captures the imagination with its subtle combination of realism and fairy-tale styles, and the Milwaukee Ballet's costumes for the adult dancers are equally enticing. Kudos also go to Thompson, whose knowledge of character dance brought this production to life.

Coppelia is a great character ballet. And character development is one thing Ballet Chicago desperately lacked when it staged Hansel and Gretel. But it's not lacking here: artistic director Daniel Duell has made soup from a stone. Somehow he managed to cast former resident choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt as Dr. Coppelius even though in January Schmidt was fuming over back wages he hadn't been paid. And Duell cast Richard Ellis and Christine Duboulay in cameo appearances as the Vicar and Swanhilda's Mother. These three mature performers share Thompson's knowledge of character development: Ellis and Duboulay are former dancers with the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, and Schmidt has extensive experience in musical theater. Although Ellis and Duboulay appear only in group scenes, they add an enormous theatrical subtlety and expertise and rescue the corps de ballet on those occasions when they begin to seem like a flock of ditzes.

Schmidt is a compelling Dr. Coppelius, the eccentric "inventor" who makes life-size mechanical dolls and delights in fooling the townsfolk into thinking that one doll, Coppelia, is his daughter. In the second act, when Swanhilda and Franz separately break into the doctor's workshop--Franz to meet his new love, Swanhilda to meet the woman who stole her love--Schmidt carries the action and raises the level of the performances by Meridith Benson as Swanhilda and Xi Jun Fu as Franz.

Swanhilda is a fascinating character and she's given some great choreography. Independent yet deeply in love with Franz, she's smart enough to fool Dr. Coppelius and tough enough to give her lover a good kick when he deserves it. Technically, Benson is a very capable dancer; artistically, she's growing into a much more interesting one. But "growing" is the key word. In the first act Benson reveals her character's intelligence in an annoying way by stamping her foot and pouting whenever Franz ignores her. By the second act she's dropped these mannerisms (apparently left over from her performance as Gretel) and allows the complexity of her character to develop. And by the third act Benson shines. Her pas de deux with Fu contains her best dancing, her warm, passionate movement subtly expressing her gratitude at having won her love back.

Unfortunately, the other side of the love equation is lost. Franz is an equally complex character, but as Fu dances him he's little more than wallpaper for Swanhilda's passions. Still, this production is strong enough to support a couple of less than perfect performances. The corps contains a number of technically solid professional dancers (though their childish portrayals of the "friends" grow annoying), especially free-lancer Erin Carper in the Czardas and Gretchen Klocke in the Prayer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.

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