Admit it: Even when in love, we have wandering eyes, right?
We all enjoy a beautiful face (I'll stop there, so we can keep this rated-G). But what if the beautiful face belonged to a doll? And what if your beloved, in gazing, actually became smitten? With a doll? I don't know about you, but I might want to kick him in the shins, and possibly out the door.
Enter Swanhilda, one of ballet's spunkier heroines, with her curiosity, lively wit and surprising tolerance for the boneheaded antics of her beau, Franz, who does, in fact, fall in love briefly with Coppélia, a beautiful, life-sized doll. From this absurd premise springs the sparkling, comedic ballet "Coppélia," created in 1870 by Arthur Saint-Léon and staged for Richmond Ballet by ballet master Malcolm Burn from the great dancer Freddie Franklin's choreography, which remains as true as possible to Saint-Léon's.
In a recent rehearsal, Burn worked with a group of dancers on a scene from Act 2, when Swanhilda leads her friends in breaking into the house of Dr. Coppélius (played by Burn) to see what's what about this man-stealing doll. Burn, now in his 25th year with Richmond Ballet, has a prodigious amount of dancing stored in his head, and worked with humor and attention on the details of pantomime — critical to the momentum of this ballet. Gestures must be clean and crisp so the audience can tell the difference between, say, "You, come with me," and "I can't believe you fell in love with a doll."
Dancer Cecile Tuzzi, who dances Swanhilda in alternation with Maggie Small, shares a story about pantomime from an earlier rehearsal. "Malcolm told me, 'You hear a noise, and it's a big noise, so you put your hands on your ears.' So, I put my hands on my ears but I decided to put them on my head because I wanted to listen to what he's saying. And he says, 'No, on your ears!' So here I am, I put my hands on my ears, and he keeps talking, and I say, 'Malcolm, I can't hear you.' And everybody was laughing."
Tuzzi delights in the role. "It's a comedy, first of all, so it's a lot of fun. And I always love telling a story. And, I get to dance, so it's three things in one." In describing the character of Swanhilda, she says, "She has a lot of energy. She's a funny girl; she has really true feelings for Franz. She's bubbly, she has character, definitely, because she doesn't let him do what he wants. She's bold. She thinks she can actually break into the house of Dr. Coppélius. She's the leader of the friends' pack, and she's the one who's willing to explore the room first, while everybody else is afraid."
Spoiler here, but Swanhilda wins back her wayward beau by dressing up as the doll and mimicking her for Dr. Coppélius and Franz; she then reveals herself, along with the foolishness of the men who thought a machine could be as loveable as a real woman. Though fun to dance, "Coppélia," with its pantomime, divertissements, and grand pas de deux for the reunited lovers, presents challenges of acting and technique as all ballets do. As Tuzzi says emphatically, "No ballet is easy."
Richmond Ballet's "Coppélia" will be staged at CenterStage, 600 E. Grace St., on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m., Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, go to richmondballet.com.