Ballet, for all its heartbreaking beauty, can follow some seriously bizarre storylines (try explaining The Nutcracker to someone someday), and Arthur Saint-Léon’s Coppélia is one of the weirder ones.
Ballet, for all its heartbreaking beauty, can follow some seriously bizarre storylines (try explaining The Nutcracker to someone someday), and Arthur Saint-Léon’s Coppélia is one of the weirder ones. This weekend, Richmond Ballet retells the classic story of “Man Makes Doll, Other Man Digs Doll, Girl Pretends to Be Doll, Everything Gets Really Strange.” Last performed locally in 2003, the new production promises spectacular scenery, comically stiff doll choreography, and, of course, drunken villagers.
If you’re new to ballet, Coppélia is the one to see, says principal dancers Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino–members of the company for six years and the muscle behind Swanilda and Franz, the two main characters. “It’s a comic ballet,” says Sabino. “You’ll laugh.” He and Small do just that, attempting to explain the plot to me. Basically, there’s a sort of mad toymaker who makes a knockout of a fake lady, Coppélia, that sits by a window fooling tights-clad villagers like Franz into falling in love. His ladyfriend Swanilda isn’t about to give Franz up to some hot doll, so she sneaks into the mad toy workshop (as if you’d need an excuse to do something like that), and a comedy of errors is born.
Small and Sabino, regular stars of the RB’s Studio Series, have found that the acting necessary for their roles in this full-length dramatic ballet is a surprising challenge. “It’s a lot harder to do comedy. It’s a lot of work!” says Small, who at one point has to mimic a person pretending to be a doll designed to look just like a person. “Your movements have to be really rigid, which is hard, and then I have to do human things at the same time.”
Since rehearsals began on January 9, the two have worked hard to perfect their comedic timing in addition to learning the choreography under the tutelage of Ballet Master Malcolm Burn. “I’m learning to act, working with Malcolm,” says Sabino. “You have to forget about what’s going on outside and just be Franz.” Small agrees. “With the story ballets, there’s a legacy that you’re trying to uphold, so you have to learn more. The hardest thing to figure out, for me, is how to be my character the whole time and not just focus on the dance steps,” she explains.
Luckily, Small and Sabino are perpetual partners and have each other’s dancing styles down to a science. “We know exactly what each other will do,” says Small. “And I can see in his eyes when something is going wrong.”
Anyone who’s seen the two dance in any number of RB performances in the past can attest: if something’s gone wrong, the audience will be the last to know.
As always, Richmond Ballet’s traditionally high production value and an even higher level of performing talent promise an excellent romantic comedy experience to kick off your Valentine’s Week. You can buy tickets on the Richmond Ballet’s website.
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