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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Milwaukee Ballet's Original, Traditional 'Coppélia'

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Luz San Miguel and Ryan Martin rehearse a pas de deux for Milwaukee Ballet's upcoming production of Coppélia, the slightly macabre comic ballet with music by Leo Delibes. They will dance the lead roles of Swanhilda and Franz in alternation with Julianne Kepley and David Hovhannisyan. The choreographer is Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink.

The tempo is slow. The dancers thoroughly fill each musical phrase with movement that threatens their balance. Strength is tested as Martin moves fluidly from kneeling to standing with San Miguel supported on one shoulder. The couple's arms and hands mirror perfectly. Each step lands, as if by nature, at the perfect center of the beat.

On top of that, they have to act. The audience must see characters, not technicians. Pink's comments to the dancers focus on how details of gesture and timing bring the characters to life, describing the sparring teenagers destined for togetherness as the prom king and queen of their small Polish village.

During a break, San Miguel and Kepley compare notes on the character of Swanhilda: "She's a brat who is fun." "She's all about herself." "She's rotten." "I like her." Kepley, finishing her first season with Milwaukee Ballet, danced the role with Atlanta Ballet some years ago.

"They didn't talk about the story or the character the way Michael does," she says. "This is more satisfying."

San Miguel says she hopes the audience will pay attention to the details. "There is so much going on in every scene," she says. "The action is very real."

Patrick Howell will dance the first act mazurka, one of this work's traditional highlights and its most famous music. "You have to go back to the foundations and spend time thinking about technique, getting this position, that line," he says. "In some ways it's harder than contemporary work. To do them back to back is a good challenge for anybody. But that's what you want—diverse dances."

The company is wrapping up a season of strong contemporary work.

"Staging what is perceived as a traditional ballet draws into question what we know about traditional ballet," Pink says.

When Coppélia was created by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870, the idea of men dancing was out of favor. Franz was played by a woman, a practice imitated into the 1950s. Toe shoes were the new technology and gender was delineated by putting female characters on pointe to an exaggerated degree.

"I defy anyone to show me the original choreography," Pink says. "You see big differences between companies dancing it now. We chose to do a classically based production, but tailor-made for our dancers. Will my choreography become the tradition for the next generation?" The story is unchanged, Pink adds. "I want to honor the people that remember Coppélia from other versions."

In Love With a Doll

"A guy falls in love with a doll," Howell says. "It sounds like a Tim Burton movie."

Indeed, Franz is distracted from Swanhilda by the beauty of Coppélia, who the villagers believe is the daughter of reclusive Dr. Coppélius. Swanhilda learns, when she breaks into his house one night, that Coppélia is actually a life-size mechanical doll. Dr. Coppélius, a variation of Dr. Frankenstein, hopes to bring it to life. When Franz arrives in amorous pursuit of the doll, Coppélius knocks him out with an elixir and tries to infuse the boy's life force into the doll. The doll comes alive, but it's Swanhilda disguised as the doll to avoid being caught.

"He's not evil," Pink says about the doctor. "He never had a family. Maybe the doll is a substitute. When he learns he's been tricked, it's shattering."

To eliminate "the faux-acting, the balletic insincerity" common to the role, Pink cast the skilled actor Daniel Mooney, well-known from years of playing leads with the Milwaukee Rep.

"He told me it was a non-dancing part," Mooney says, "but when you're interacting with the prima ballerina, what are you doing? Every day is a physical workout. I have to remind myself I don't need a vocal warm-up."

Coppélia
plays May 19-22 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, call 414-902-2103.

John Schneider is a writer, actor and director well known from years with Theatre X. He teaches at Marquette University.