E.T.A. Hoffman’s gothic romance The Sandman may have inspired it, but Coppélia is a comedy: Giselle turned on its head. The spunky heroine does not die of a broken heart but marries her hooligan lover – after exposing his secret sweetheart as a windup doll.
Onstage nearly from beginning to end, the high-spirited Swanilda counts as one of Coppélia’s principal pleasures. The other – particular to this 1974 New York City Ballet production – is its revelatory progress from Petipa to Balanchine. Alexandra Danilova, a famous Swanilda in her day and a star of various Ballets Russes, first encountered Petipa’s Coppélia with Balanchine when they were schoolmates at the Russian Imperial Ballet. In their seventies, she laid out what she remembered and he filled in the holes with new choreography.
Swanilda begins as the Petipa princess of perfect balances, pumping up and down on one leg to pause occasionally on pointe, and landing from big leaps in rock-solid pliés. By the third act, the country lass has scooted forward a century and discovered Balanchine. Gone are the intricate stationary balances. Now she replaces one leg and direction with another to skim across vast space.
In the opening casts, Megan Fairchild and Tiler Peck met these competing demands with nary a wobble or missed accent. I cannot imagine anyone doing better. They had less success, however, finding Swanilda in the steps.
The choreography for our heroine lends itself to various interpretations: Swanilda as heartless or as innocently if carelessly high-spirited. Does she beckon Coppélia down from the balcony out of eagerness for a new friend or to taunt the bookworm for her solitary ways? (Swanilda doesn’t yet realise that Coppélia is a doll.) As ballerina and bride in the third act, is Swanilda showboating with those plucky Sleeping Beauty steps, arms wafting overhead as her torso lays back, or is she so absorbed in the plush movement that she fails to notice its exorbitance? Fairchild and Peck did not say.
As with her other classical roles, Peck’s delicate-ballerina persona overshadowed the character she gave to Swanilda. The young principal may evoke images and inspire metaphors like no one else, but she has yet to deploy these conjuring powers as an actress. Fairchild rendered the peasant girl more precisely, with a Swanilda headstrong enough to do harm but not ill-intentioned. And her Swanilda’s impersonation of the doll was uncanny in every detail, such as her torso bobbing after her motor had run down and brought her to a halt.
In any case, Coppélia presents such a bounty of brilliant dances – from Andrew Veyette’s loutish Franz bounding between little and big jumps without a hitch, to the 24 tiny Golden Hours adorning the stage, to the resonant solos of Dawn, Prayer and Spinner – that even with Swanilda not all that she could be, the ballet earned its ecstatic clatter of applause.