Artistic Director’s Notebook: Coppélia

By now you’ve probably heard the old story about me and Coppélia. To do it justice, I’ll have to go back to 1948, when the New York City Ballet was born. That same year, my grandfather accepted a position working for the United Nations, causing my grandparents to relocate to New York. Watching the nascent ballet troupe, they developed an appreciation for the choreography of George Balanchine. My mother was introduced to ballet and developed a love for it. Later, my father became an equally ardent admirer. My parents were subscribers to the New York City Ballet before I was born. When my sister and I were old enough, we were encouraged to join this family tradition and began attending. I’m sure my parents were merely planning to develop our appreciation for the art form, not to put us into tights. But, during one of our trips to the ballet, we were treated to Coppélia, and somewhere in the middle of Act I, I turned to my parents and said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to dance.”

So it began. I was nine and can’t say I fully understood what I was in for. I did try to politely thank the School of American Ballet for an interesting introductory year, while also letting them know I would be quitting. Natasha Gleboff, executive director of the school, informed my parents that quitting was not an option. I continued. About eight years later, I found myself in the corps de ballet of Coppélia, with no regrets. Later came Franz and now a stint as Dr. Coppelius.

Balanchine, the groundbreaker and innovator who brought us The Four Temperaments and Serenade, was less known for his few story ballets. His The Nutcracker is well-known and often imitated, but Coppélia has hardly been seen outside of New York. For this creation, he called on longtime friend Alexandra Danilova, and the two recreated and reconstructed from memories of productions they had grown up with.

With the delightful composition of Léo Delibes as the guide, the tale is told. Delibes makes you want to dance. His music is not complicated, just infectious, joyous. It works its way under the soles of your feet. Balanchine said there was no finer composer for ballet. Delibes was Tchaikovsky’s predecessor and inspiration. Our orchestra, under the baton of three conductors during the run of Coppélia, will bring the score to new heights.

Bringing this production of Coppélia to PNB has been a long and rewarding process. I started talking about it six years ago. An important gift from Glenn Kawasaki four years ago moved the idea from dream to possibility. Subsequent gifts from Dan & Pam Baty, Sharon Richardson, Patty Edwards. Marcella McCaffrey, and Bruce & Jolene McCaw, partnered with more than one hundred participants in a year-long “book drive,” raised 1.3 million dollars. (The names of these New Works patrons can be found on the spines of books in Dr. Coppelius’ workshop.) Significant help also came in the form of a co-production with San Francisco Ballet. With financing in place, I engaged internationally acclaimed scenic and costume designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno. Roberta has guided us through the creation of three acts, a few dozen props, and nearly 150 costumes. Each carries a whimsy and an effervescence that will delight. Her sense of color palette is sublime, and she has been an absolute joy to work with over the past two years.

Judith Fugate has staged almost the entire work for PNB. I remember Judy as both a technically pure and wickedly funny Swanilda. Critics described Danilova’s portrayal in the same way. Judy is selfless as a coach, offering insight and encouragement. Garielle Whittle taught our third act corps de ballet of students. Balanchine offered these ten-to-fourteen year-old future ballerinas elegant choreography, never playing to their cuteness, but rather showcasing them with quality.

If ever there was an opportunity for all of us to be united in one production, it is now. There is no corner of our institution that has not contributed to making Coppélia happen. Both our scenic and costume shops have devoted most of the year to building this production. All counted, close to one hundred individuals have painted, hammered, stitched, and beaded. Marketers, fundraisers, dancers, and musicians join students and stage hands to present this new creation. You are a part of it, too. We are all proud to unveil a wondrous new addition to our repertory. Thank you all for being a part of this dream. Enjoy Coppélia!

Featured photo: Kaori Nakamura as Swanilda in George Balanchine’s Coppélia, photo © Angela Sterling.