The Dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet Masterfully Play With Dolls

A village boy loves a village girl, but is also infatuated with what he thinks is the lovely daughter of a crotchety toymaker. Swanilda, our village girl and a plucky lass, manages to discover that the lovely daughter is actually a lovely doll.

On first look, you’d have to work hard to find a story sillier than Coppélia’s. A village boy loves a village girl, but is also infatuated with what he thinks is the lovely daughter of a crotchety toymaker. Swanilda, our village girl and a plucky lass, manages to discover that the lovely daughter is actually a lovely doll. When Franz, our boy, realizes his mistake, a rumpus ensues, followed by a wedding for girl and boy. But this plot, drawn from the E.T.A. Hoffmann story, is a reliable skeleton to hang an incredible collection of dances on, fit for everyone from high-powered virtuoso performers to young students. Choreographer George Balanchine, along with his colleague ballerina Alexandra Danilova, created a beautiful pastiche of what they remembered from their youth in the Russian Imperial School, where they learned some of the choreography from the 19th-century versions by Arthur Saint-Léon and Marius Petipa. Augmented by Balanchine’s inimitable neoclassical genius and set to one of the most danceable scores in ballet, their 1974 production of Coppélia, originally for New York City Ballet, is like a Swiss watch—as reliable as it is beautiful.

Pacific Northwest Ballet, which has been dancing this production since 2010, is presenting three different couples in the main roles, along with multiple casts in other parts. Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand have been performing Swanilda and Franz since the company began dancing this version, and their familiarity with the characters led to a sense of ease on opening night. Rausch has a gentle sweetness here that tempers her version of Swanilda. Tisserand’s boyish quality reinforces Franz’s feckless charm—he dithers especially well, trying to choose between Swanilda and the doll Coppélia. Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths are also returning to these roles, bringing their considerable technical skills. Like fellow company member Carrie Imler, Biasucci excels at quick and sharp pointework, and Swanilda’s choreography is laced with examples of those qualities. Griffiths bounds along as Franz. The role is packed with jumping and turning—often both at once, and Griffiths just shines here. Jonathan Porretta and Noelani Pantastico are the third couple in this run—while he’s also been dancing Franz since 2010, Swanilda is a new role for Pantastico, who left PNB for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in 2008 and returned this season. Always a strong dancer, her time in Europe seems to have added a new amplitude to her upper body—her port de bras and focus as Swanilda are very effective. Porretta could just cruise along on his theater skills—he is a remarkable dancing actor—but he matches those abilities with technical verve as well. His cabrioles, a kind of traveling jump, were so crisp you could almost hear the clap of his legs beating together from the balcony.

Whatever dramatic tension the ballet has is all cleared up by the last act, leaving the field open for pure virtuosity in a village festival. The original conceit was to illustrate the hours of the day, like the verses from Ecclesiastes, beginning with a swirling variation for Dawn, a contemplative solo for Prayer, and a folk dance-inflected solo for a Spinner. All these are led by the Golden Hours, a soloist and 24 young dancers from the PNB school, working with the same kind of aplomb that their professional counterparts do. The tiny hours resemble Degas’ young dancers, with black ribbons around their necks and highly stylized gestures—their leader is just a grown-up version, with those same stylized port de bras. Margaret Mullin and Angelica Generosa were very distinctive in the role last weekend. Generosa in particular made long phrases out of individual steps so that you could see how the role developed. Kylee Kitchens remained gracious and calm during the most challenging moments as Prayer, a role in which all the hard parts are very exposed. Jessika Anspach, a dancer whose energy makes it easy to find her wherever she is onstage, seemed to have a wonderful time as Spinner—both she and Kitchens are retiring from the company at the end of the season, which makes their performances even sweeter. E

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