This sunny 19th-century comic classic, staged in 1974 by George Balanchine and the great dancer and teacher Alexandra Danilova, has been called one of the happiest ballets in existence, and it's hard to disagree. Encompassed in three lively acts are lighthearted renderings of love, loss, mistaken identity, revenge, reconciliation and, to wrap it all up, a wedding with the promise of happily ever after.
For enthusiasts of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, the timing of Copp_lia's return to the NYCB repertory after a five-year absence could not be better. The two ballets, which Balanchine choreographed 20 years apart, share some remarkable similarities. Yet seldom do audiences have an opportunity to see them back to back.
Like The Nutcracker, Copp_lia is an evening-length work based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the 19th-century German-Romantic writer known for tales of fantasy flavored by the macabre. Both ballets feature an eccentric central character whose fanciful inventions come to life (or so it seems). Both works are a visual feast with storybook sets by Rouben Ter-Arutunian. And like the world's most celebrated holiday ballet, Copp_lia boasts a large cast of dancing children and appeals to audiences of all ages.
The story of Copp_lia, based on Hoffmann's 1815 tale Der Sandmann, is a charming circuitous story that translates easily into the language of dance and mime. The ballet takes its name from a life-size doll created by the mysterious, faintly fiendish genius, Dr. Copp_lius. The not-so-good doctor sits "the girl with enamel eyes," as she's called in some versions of the ballet, in the window of his workshop, a book in her lap. Upon seeing her, Frantz, a likable village rogue, becomes infatuated, much to the chagrin of his plucky sweetheart Swanilda.
Determined to meet her rival, Swanilda sneaks into the workshop, discovers Copp_lia's true identity, then mischievously switches places with her. Frantz learns his lesson. Copp_lius is distraught. And Swanilda, who must own up to causing Copp_lius's misery, grows from girl to woman. The wedding celebration envelopes the ballet's third act.
Copp_lia, with choreography by Arthur Saint-Leon and music by L_o Delibes, had its premiere on May 25, 1870 at the Theatre Imperial de l'Opera in Paris and was an instant hit. If Giselle is the 19th-century's great tragic ballet, dance historians often cite Copp_lia as the century's standout comedy, a connection strengthened because both ballets take place in a peasant village and are love stories, albeit with very different endings. Sadly, the original production of Copp_lia has a tragic footnote. Giuseppina Bozzacchi, the 16-year-old ballet student who originated the role of Swanilda to great acclaim, died of smallpox on her 17th birthday just six months later.
Copp_lia would premiere in Russia in 1894 with the original Delibes score and new steps by the great choreographer Marius Petipa, known for his stagings of The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. As a young ballet student at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Balanchine danced the mazurka in the ballet and admired the music. "I have often said that Delibes is one of my favorite composers for dance," he said. "Delibes is the first great ballet composer; Tschaikovsky and Stravinsky are his successors."
Balanchine made his decision, at the age of 70, to introduce Copp_lia to NYCB audiences. In staging the ballet, he collaborated with Alexandra Danilova, a celebrated Swanilda with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and, in her later years, a teacher at the School of American Ballet known for her prodigious memory. The version audiences will see in January incorporates elements of the Petipa choreography into Balanchine's creation.
Evening-length stagings of well-known ballets, with their elaborate sets and costumes, are the perfect vehicle for a visual homage to those who made the work possible. In this regard, The Nutcracker and Copp_lia share one more similarity. The bodices of the dresses worn by the women in the Hot Chocolate dance in The Nutcracker are adorned with small cameo pictures of NYCB's founders. (The soloists wear an image of Balanchine while the corps de ballet dancers display Lincoln Kirstein.)
As for Copp_lia, sharp-eyed audience members should direct their attention to the bells hanging over the stage in Act III. They display monograms of the creators associated with the original production: Saint-Leon, Hoffmann and Charles Nuitter, the librettist. The biggest bell is inscribed "J'etais cree par Leo Delibes, 25 Mai 1870." But there is also a smaller bell with the letters GB. George Balanchine? Giuseppina Bozzacchi? Even a celebrated comedy can have a touch of mystery.
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.
Copp_lia Performance Dates
Wednesday, January 7 at 7:30 pm
Saturday, January 10 at 2 pm
Sunday, January 11 at 3 pm
Tuesday, January 13 at 7:30 pm
Friday, January 16 at 8 pm
Saturday January 17 at 8 pm
For tickets and information, visit the New York City Ballet.