Last week I caught a single performance of Coppélia at New York City Ballet, with Sterling Hyltin in the role of Swanilda and Gonzalo García as her wayward beau, Frantz. It’s easy to see why this comic ballet has remained in the repertory for so long. Délibes’ music is enchanting from start to finish, and consistently danceable. The little pause at the top of the phrase in the “wheat dance”—during which the girls listen to an ear of grain to test whether their boyfriends love them—is so lilting, so charming, and, as an added bonus, gives the dancers a perfect opportunity to perch, ever-so-gracefully, in a balance. And who can resist the rousing mazurka? (If only the NYCB dancers were a bit more lusty in their execution of this folk dance. In their ribbons and boots, they look like very well-mannered and slightly embarrassed kids.)
It was my first time seeing Hyltin in the role of Swanilda. She is a natural comedienne, with big eyes and a long, girlish face that she is not loath to scrunch up into funny expressions. Unlike many ballerinas, she’s not overly attached to the idea of looking beautiful at all times, no matter what the situation. She’s terribly light on her toes; her jumps have a wonderful sparkle. With her extraordinarily linear frame, she can create marvelous angles with her elbows and knees, handy when dancing the role of a girl imitating a doll. But she can also be soft, lyrical, even sexy (as in Rubies and Stravinsky Violin Concerto). Her Swanilda is playful and sweet, without the edge some dancers bring to the role. (I remember thinking Natalia Osipova was screaming at the audience when she danced it.) Meanwhile, García’s Frantz is a handsome, seductive dolt, warm and easy to forgive. And he’s so pretty that one is reminded that this role was once danced by a woman, en travesti.
For the first two acts of his 1974 production, Balanchine enlisted Alexandra Danilova, a famously mischievous Swanilda, to help him create a version close to the one she had danced for many years. But he remade the final act, replacing the allegorical dances (dawn, prayer, the hours) with more abstract solos and ensembles. These are lovely, but I do miss the notion of each dance representing a particular idea, which one hears clearly in the music. The dances for the dolls in the second act, too, are somewhat uninspired, though Austin Bachman managed to make a vivid impression as the melancholy acrobat.
But the best thing about Balanchine’s third act is the fact that the corps de ballet is replaced by twenty-four adorable little girls from the School of American Ballet, a garland of perfect Petipa ballerinas in miniature.