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DOLLS ‘R’ US: Russian company brings classic to Harriman series

Dolls that come to life, a village love story, iconic ballet moves: Coppéliais hard to resist even in a so-so production. The version by the Moscow Festival Ballet, presented here on May 1st by the Harriman-Jewell Series, was a considerable cut above the average, with youthful dancers, faux-naïve set designs, and fine dancing in the Russian tradition. If the Folly Theater’s tiny stage presented a bit of a challenge, especially with scenery that ate up perhaps too music of the usable floor space, the choreography of this 19th-century classic had been adapted for smaller spaces, so that only the full-company numbers such as that of the Act 3 finale seemed perilously crowded.

The lead dancers were excellent, beginning with Marianna Chemalina as Swanhilde, the young woman vying for the affection of her beloved Franz. She sparkled white-hot in her opening solo, displaying disciplined technique and a flair for the comedic. (Her pirouettes at the end of Act 3 were also remarkable, and drew sizeable applause.) Ruslan Mukhambetkaliev was the muscular, tightly wound Franz, with thighs that reminded you of Baryshnikov and leaps and fouettes filled with languid, carefree vigor.Elena Aytuganova was the Doll, Coppélia, made so lifelike by the Geppetto-like Coppelius that Franz, spying her in the upper balcony of the doll-maker’s house, believes her to be real. Aytuganova managed to mix the traditional mechanical motions with a certain warmth that perhaps suggested she was a bit human. Dancers Ekaterina Egorova, Olena Antsupova and Nadezhda Illarionova were precise in the Act 3 variations, but beyond that the company looked a tad green, perhaps young enough to have recently completed their training.

The Act 1 set included three wings that had to be crammed so close together that half of the Folly balcony — unfortunately the half I was sitting in — could not even see the Doll sitting in the upper ledge of Coppelius’ house. More appealing was the toy shop of Act 2, filled with bric-a-brac and with four dolls that danced, each to his or her own music — Chinese, Arabian, Scottish and Spanish. Coppélia is of course the star of all the dolls, and when the doll-maker enters he casts a spell on Franz which will supposedly breathe life into her wooden body. It is, of course, Swanhilde, who has donned the doll’s costume in order to have some fun with the men.

The festive “party scene” of Act 3 is often omitted, as it exists solely to set up nearly an hour of variations. But it is a must for ballet fans, and its inclusion is part of Festival Ballet founder Sergei Radchenko’s desire to create a Coppélia that is as close as possible to Alexander Gorski’s original. It was a notable effort, even if the costumes — some attractive enough by themselves — at times clashed visually. There is one other star of Coppélia that deserves mention, and that is the excellent score by Léo Delibes: Subtle and solidly tuneful throughout, it is about the closest thing to a Tchaikovsky score you’ll find among these 19th-century efforts. It was, of course, played on recording, but in an especially fine performance by the Festival Ballet’s own Orchestra.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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