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The Bolshoi Ballet

By Barbara Newman

Bolshoi Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
London, U.K.
July 19–August 8, 2010
Reviewed by Barbara Newman

 

Natalia Osipova in Coppélia. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Royal Opera House.


The Bolshoi Ballet’s current Coppélia arrived in London already hailed as a historic restoration and a novelty, old and new at the same time. Introduced into the repertory last year, it emerged from Sergei Vikharev’s study of the notation documenting the production staged by Petipa in 1884 and amended by Cecchetti 10 years later. That version, in turn, reworked Arthur Saint-Léon’s original creation, which opened in 1870 only months before the choreographer’s death.

 

Every Coppélia turns on the confusion between a doll and a woman pretending to be a doll. Reportedly blending authenticity with invention, this production adds another layer of uncertainty to the tale of reality and artifice. So you might reasonably wonder which portions came from Petipa or Cecchetti or Saint-Léon and which from Vikharev.

 

From an academic standpoint, their combined effort bears a distinct family resemblance to Giselle, even quoting it directly several times. The women return constantly to small jumps and occasional beats in neatly repeated sequences, and the mime relies on a few simple gestures, broadly and slowly stated. The folk dances on the other hand, which Saint-Léon brought to the ballet stage for the first time, unfurl with a vivid flourish that would comfortably fit Swan Lake, and in Swanilda’s startling sequence of fouettés in Act III we could see Odile foretold.

 

Fascinating for scholars and largely irrelevant to the wider audience, the patchwork provenance doesn’t matter as long as the ballet ultimately conveys the romance, mystery, and mischief of Delibes’ lilting score. Theatrically, however, the production lacks spirit and the familiar story has nearly vanished, as if the public’s knowledge of it could be taken for granted. Swanilda never sees Franz flirting with Coppélia, so her anger seems unjustified. Coppélius bumbles through the action without dramatic purpose, neither an obsessed magician nor a buffoon, and paws at the sleeping Franz so vaguely that his motive never becomes clear.


A natural soubrette with a beguiling smile and a jump that ignores both preparation and gravity, Natalia Osipova pounced on Swanilda eagerly, pulling the whole company along in her sparkling wake as she pouted and plotted. Unfortunately, she showed us a generic character rather than an individual--despite her prodigious talent, without a coherent narrative she had little choice--but I found her irresistable anyway.


Ruslan Skvortsov made an amiable Franz, partnering graciously and delivering his single solo with unassuming charm, and Gennady Yanin filled the outlines of Coppélius genially, though apparently robbed of the opportunity to plumb the role’s interpretive depths.

   
The St. Petersburg Conservatory offers a five-year course in the Sources of Dance History, which will undoubtedly prepare future researchers to unearth other choreographic treasures. Yet most viewers come to the ballet hoping to be moved, dazzled, or entertained, regardless of the means. This stylistic exercise may raise intriguing questions about research and revival, but for all its playful atmosphere and snappy polish, it isn’t much fun.