New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

May 26 afternoon, June 2 evening, 2018
Coppélia, and season wrap-up

— by Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet concluded its Spring 2018 season with seven performances of Coppélia and a closing night repeat of the season opening all-Balanchine program. While neither of the two Coppélia performances I saw was deficient in any way, through no fault of anyone I left the DHK Theater on both occasions feeling less than satisfied.

Coppélia is generally considered to be one of the greatest comic ballets of the 19th Century. Originally choreographed by Arthur St. Leon in 1870, Marius Petipa restaged it in 1884, and it is that version (revised by Cecchetti in 1894) that has survived. In this production, Balanchine and Alexandra Danila modified some of the choreography for Acts I and II, but Act III, the wedding between Swanilda and Franz and post-ceremony divertissement celebration, is all Balanchine.

The story is simple, and since Coppélia is not an unfamiliar ballet, I’ll limit that exposition. Swanilda, the spirited Galician town pistol, loves Franz, accurately described in the program as a “bumpkin.” Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Franz, who claims to love Swanilda, is enamored of a girl (the titular Coppélia) sitting in a chair on a second-floor balcony without moving a muscle. He blows her kisses, and Swanilda gets jealous. Eventually, as the reclusive Dr. Coppélius, the town weird old guy, emerges for his constitutional, Franz and his equally bumpkinish friends jostle him for no particular reason (in New York, it’s called a mugging). Coppélius loses his house key, which the curious Swanilda picks up and, with scaredy-cat friends in tow, goes in search of the starched floozy. Coppélius follows after he realizes someone’s entered his home, and clever Franz decides to go directly for that hot doll on the balcony – with a ladder. After Swanilda and her friends wreak havoc with Coppélius’s dolls and then discover that the girl Franz has lusted after is really made of wood (Coppélia and Franz really were perfect for each other), the mad doctor snares Franz coming through his window, gets him drunk, tries to steal his life force and transfer it to his doll, but ultimately realizes he’s been tricked. Swanilda and Franz run off triumphant, Dr. Coppélius’s somewhat perverted life’s work is destroyed, and without the doll to distract him, Franz marries Swanilda, and the town celebrates.

I’ve seen this NYCB version of Coppélia many times previously, and enjoyed it (as I did the production by American Ballet Theatre, which that company has not presented in about 4 years). But, with exceptions, the Swanilda performances this year – at least in Act I and to a lesser extent in Act II – seemed more cartoonishly, and unnecessarily, exaggerated than I recall. It seems obvious to me that, since that aspect of the characterizations was evident in both portrayals I saw, this was intentional – and maybe it’s been that way all along and I was just too involved to notice.

But being described as one of the best comic ballets of the 19th century suggests, if not requires, that it be considered in its 19th century context. At least in Acts I and II, Coppélia resembles opera buffa – with the exaggerated antics portrayed in comic operas of the period from the late 18th to mid 19th centuries (with roots in Commedia dell’arte before that). Coppélia also is generally considered to be an example of the Romantic ballet genre (and the last of the Romantic ballets), featuring the supernatural and the fantastic: imaginary beings, weightless ballerinas, spirits that come out at night to bedevil common people, and/or ogres, sorcerers, or witches – in this case, a mad scientist who attempts to bring dolls to life. Finally, and related, Coppélia also has roots in the macabre. The ballet is based on the stories The Sandemann (The Sandman) and and Die Puppe (The Doll) by E.T.A. Hoffman – the same storyteller who wrote The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which evolved into The Nutcracker ballet. Hoffmann was the Edgar Allen Poe of his era, creating stories filled with gothic horror. As with The Nutcracker, however, Hoffman’s horror was sanitized out of Coppélia – except in certain productions vestiges remain in the form of grotesque-looking eyes that Coppélius would attach to his doll creations.

The point of this digression is that the exaggeration that I now see as unnatural and superfluous really isn’t. I may find it overbaked, but it’s not at all inappropriate in context.

Of greater concern is that Swanilda, to me, is one of those roles that ideally should be portrayed by a young (not necessarily in age, but in appearance and experience) ballerina,  and one at least on the same social level as Franz and her friends (although her superior intelligence and leadership qualities are a given). Otherwise, Swanilda is not only the leader of the pack, she’s the pack-members’ considerably older sister – and Franz comes across as suffering from arrested development as well as a low IQ. And this preference isn’t solely of my creation – while artistic intentions are not always a reliable guide, Arthur St. Leon’s choice to play Swanhilda (NYCB eliminates the “h”) was a sweet-faced (from photographs I’ve seen) 16 year old named Giuseppina Bozzacchi, who originated Swanhilda on May 25, 1870. [Bozzacchi and the ballet were huge hits. She repeated the role 18 times, until August 31, when the Franco-Prussian War began and the Paris Opera suspended performances – and pay. With no money, Bozzacchi gradually starved, became seriously ill, and died on the morning of her 17th birthday.]

All that having been said, and aside from exaggeration and having more experience than is my preference, the two Swanildas I saw performed marvelously. Sterling Hyltin just keeps getting better, although that’s hardly possible. Even though she was smarter (in character) than anyone else on the stage, it was an endearing blend of playful exuberance and technical brilliance. And when she was able to place characterization somewhat aside in Act III, she delivered Balanchine’s highly complex choreography flawlessly.

I had greater concerns with Andrew Veyette’s Franz. I could suspend disbelief as to Hyltin’s Swanilda (it didn’t take much – her vibrancy was real), but in terms of the character he’s supposed to be, I couldn’t believe he was of the same generation – which might not be a concern in other roles, but in this one it is. This role no longer suits him. His execution was less problematic – although Veyette of late seems to run out of gas quickly (or, seen a different way, saves his energy as long as possible), somehow he also always manages to pull it out at the end. And his partnering remains top-notch. He doesn’t only partner securely, he’s a preventive partner, with his attention and his hands always ready to assist his ballerina.

On Saturday evening, the program featured Ashley Bouder and Joseph Gordon as Swanilda and Franz. Bouder, who has been with the company since 2000 and, remarkably, had not performed Swanilda until her role debut the previous night, appeared to me to be even more forced and unnaturally perky in Act I than Hyltin was. While not over the top, it was far more “out there” than I was comfortable with, and looked like overcompensation. However, in every respect her technical execution was at a quality level that Bouder has managed consistently to achieve throughout her NYCB career: superlative in every way

But in this cast, the contrast with her Franz was pronounced. Gordon, who also debuted in his role the previous night, not only fit the part in appearance, he delivered a sensational performance to boot. I rarely find a performance with nothing to nit-pick about, but this was one of them. He’ll add a bit more comic flair as he grows more comfortable in the role, but it was a noteworthy portrayal.

Also debuting the previous night was Giovanni Villalobos as Dr. Coppélius (it was a pleasure to welcome back Robert LaFosse in that role the previous week). Villalobos is a cantankerous Coppélius, less the pixilated and somewhat endearing old geezer than a crotchety, slightly deranged mad inventor – which is probably closer to the way the role is supposed to be played, even though nearly every portrayal I’ve seen, from Shaun O’Brien (the original Dr. Coppélius in this production) on, leans the other way.

Although it’s always enjoyable to watch accomplished dancers execute at their anticipated high level, I find the opportunity to see dancers on the cusp assaying featured roles to be more rewarding, and at these performances, there were an abundance of examples in Balanchine’s Act III divertissements.

It’s easy to be upstaged by the 24 young dancers (students from NYCB’s affiliated School of American Ballet) in the “Waltz of the Golden Hours,” but Sarah Villwock on May 26 (her role debut) and Baily Jones on June 2 (who debuted the previous night) captured my attention. Villwock has had an exceptional season already; this was just icing on the cake. And although I’ve seen Jones previously, her performance here was far more sprightly, captivating, and crystalline than I’d anticipated. I’ve highlighted Meagan Mann previously, and her Spinner on the 26th was superb – as was Sara Adams’s on the 2nd, albeit slightly less radiant. Both Olivia Boisson on the 2nd (she debuted in the role the previous night) and Lydia Wellington on the 26th (her role debut) delivered admirable performances in “Prayer.” Each was exceptional technically, and Boisson communicated an unusual combination of warmth and fragility. In “Dawn” on the 2nd, Mary Elizabeth Sell delivered her most complete outing in a featured role to date. And in their respective role debuts, Ashley Hod and Christopher Grant on the 26th, and Unity Phelan and Spartak Hoxha on the 2nd, delivered the power and exuberance essential to Balanchine’s “War and Discord.”

Season Wrap-Up

This has been a tumultuous year for NYCB, and credit goes to the “Interim Artistic Team” of Jonathan Stafford, Justin Peck, Craig Hall, and Rebecca Krohn for keeping things on an even keel following Peter Martins’s departure. The Robbins 100 Celebration was a huge success artistically and, apparently, financially based on the full houses for the performances I attended (and should have lasted longer); the extraordinary Winter 2018 season that Maria Kowroski had continued this Spring (and even though I thought one role – in In G Major – did not suit her, she executed it brilliantly); Joaquin De Luz is going out (he’s scheduled to retire this coming Fall season) on a high, with brilliant outings in major roles; and Tiler Peck, Sara Mearns, and Hyltin have had abundant opportunities to continue to excel, which they continue to do.

But praising the current team does not require discrediting Martins’s previous accomplishments. Taking over from Balanchine almost guaranteed failure – no one could match his choreography, and Martins was brutalized for not being Balanchine, for taking risks that proved unsuccessful, and for seemingly letting the company deteriorate.

But at least since 2009 (probably earlier), under Martins’s stewardship NYCB has become the most exciting ballet company in New York. If he was in some way responsible for its seeming decline prior to that point (which may simply have been a reflection of not being Balanchine), deserved or not, he is also in some way responsible for its ascendance, deserved or not, and he deserves the credit. The abundance of quality talent that was encouraged with featured and leading roles rather than festering in the corps (the embarrassment of riches that I and others frequently observed); the risk-taking; the outreach to new generations of audiences by making ballet and ballet dancers appear more like remarkably talented kids next door than visiting nobility; all occurred under his watch. Attributing the company’s present success to Martins’s departure recreates history, and serves only to ratify a collateral agenda.

While the current leadership team has maintained the company’s standards, it’s necessarily interim. Consequently, risks taken are few. The season was set by Martins, but the casting most likely was not. It’s premature to raise red flags, but it appears to me (perhaps inaccurately, since obviously there were performances and castings that I was unable to see) that since the Winter 2018 Season began there have been far fewer opportunities provided to corps and soloists to appear in featured and leading roles than in the recent past (with the exception of Erica Perreira, who has finally been given the opportunity to assay roles that were not assigned to her previously), and far greater reliance on rank and experience. That these more experienced dancers are well-qualified for their roles isn’t the point – without providing real opportunities for highly promising and qualified corps dancers, and challenges for younger principals, the company risks stagnating. I trust that what I perceive is a product of understandable caution in the absence of any mandate beyond not to screw things up, rather than a change in essential artistic policy.

Finally, a salute to those company members who are departing (at least those I’m aware of). Soloist Savannah Lowery is leaving prematurely – in the past year or two, the quality of her execution, to my eye, has improved markedly. Cameron Dieck has been a reliable (and, at least on stage, unassuming) dancer and partner, and Likolani Brown stood out for the comforting serenity, as well as competence, that she brought to her performances. Finding her on stage somehow always gave me a sense of feeling grounded. All will be missed.