Ballet Austin brings a lesser-known classic to life

Photo courtesy of Rice Evans

"He's one of the original mad scientists," says Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills of Dr. Coppélius, the strange toymaker who, in the 19th century ballet Coppélia, creates a beautiful, lifelike doll that becomes part of a lovers' dispute and case of switched identity. The lovers are Swanhilda, the village beauty, sharp as a tack, and Franz, not so much. While engaged to Swanhilda, Franz makes a pass at the doll. He sneaks into Coppélius' mysterious workshop to have another look, and the old recluse gets him drunk in an attempt to steal his life force and transfer it to the doll. Infuriated by Franz's infidelity, Swanhilda has also snuck into the workshop. She steals the doll's clothes and convinces both Franz and Coppélius that she is the doll come to life. Once she's sure that Franz will feel like a complete idiot, she exposes her trick. Franz and Swanhilda reconcile, but Coppélius, after coming to believe he had achieved his life's dream, is wholly crushed. He's been punk'd.

But don't worry. Coppélia is a comedy, so it ends with a jubilant wedding, and the angry Coppélius is appeased with a bag of gold. In addition to a relatively simple plot, Coppélia has ingredients similar to those of other classic ballet favorites: youthful peasant lovers, deceit of a pathetic and bumbling elder, and a pastoral setting, not to mention a sweetly luscious score by Léo Delibes.

Ballet Austin's production this weekend will be its first Coppélia in 15 years. Despite its appeal, the comic ballet isn't performed much even by big New York companies, so it's a bit of a challenging programming choice for Austin, says Mills. "You throw a ballet out like Giselle or Coppélia, and people are like, 'I'm not really sure how we'll sell that,' but you just have to be diligent about it," he says, recalling that audiences weren't sure who or what Balanchine was when the company first began dancing the neoclassical master's work. By presenting lesser-known narrative ballets such as Coppélia and next season's La Sylphide and keeping them in rotation, Mills hopes to continue to develop Austin's ballet palate.

Mills is staging a tried-and-true version of Coppélia, one passed down by alumni of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. With Anthony Casati in the character role of Dr. Coppélius, the leads are double-cast: Ashley Lynn Gilfix with Frank Shott, and, with Paul Michael Bloodgood, Jaime Lynn Witts in her debut in a narrative principal role. "I think she's just a natural actress," says Mills of Witts. "In classical ballet schools now, character dancing isn't really taught, mime certainly is never taught, and so young dancers can have a disconnect in that respect to these ballets. Sometimes the dancers don't understand the quality of the gestures they're trying to do. They try to make more of it than it really is – rather than making a dance of the mime, they try to Meryl Streep it, you know? So we spend a lot of time on it, and Jaime is just naturally adept at it."

In addition to the challenge of getting across an unfamiliar narrative through mime, not to mention the technically difficult classical choreography, the ballet requires precise comic timing. "There are particular things that have to be done to get the point across," says Mills. "But it's fun to experiment with ways in which you can do that, because there are a lot of different ways that are still true to the piece but can make it more natural for the person who's acting it. It's been fun, because [the dancers] are willing to go there and try things, and when it goes over the top and the room just stops and bursts into laughter because of that .... It's been a lot of fun."

Coppélia runs May 7-9, Friday & Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 3pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-2163 or visit www.balletaustin.org.

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