Kansas City Ballet in Coppelia in spring 1993. Photographer Steve Wilson.
Kansas City Ballet in Coppelia in spring 1993. Photographer Steve Wilson.

Choreography: Todd Bolender
Music: Leo Delibes
Set and Costume Design: Ed Wittstein

Coppélia, or The Girl with Emerald Eyes, a ballet in three acts premiered at the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra in Paris on May 25, 1870. The production, a collaborative effort of composer Le Delibes, librettist Charles Nuitter and choreographer Arthur Saint Léon, met with great success and the ballet has in the ensuing 103 years, and in varied stagings, charmed the dance audiences all over the world. Coppélia was the last great ballet of the Romantic era to premiere in Paris, and it was indeed a wondrous fusion of magic, mystery, folklore and nationalistic fervor so characteristic of the period. The Coppélia of the State Ballet’s 1993 Spring Season, meant to be an enduring part of the company’s repertoire, is grounded in the original, but freshly interpreted in the choreography of artistic director, Todd Bolender, and set and costumes of designer, Ed Wittstein.

Work on the first Coppélia began in the year 1867. As Ivor Guest recounts, Leo Delibes, a composer of many light operas and employed as second chorus master at the Paris Opera, was commissioned to compose a ballet score to a scenario by Charles Nuitter, the archivist at the Opera with whom Delibes had collaborated on La Source. Nuitter had taken a story, ‘Der Sandmann’, form the tales of E.T.A. Hoffman but had used only the central characters. In Hoffman’s darkly Gothic tale, as in Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman, Dr. Coppélius is a figure of sinister dimension. In Nuitter’s hand, Coppélius became a tragic/comic eccentric.

Delibes’ gaily lyrical score was fitted perfectly to the libretto and to the times, for the period of the ballet’s creation was one of intense nationalism and pride. The Franco-Prussian was would begin in July of that year. The audience was surely warmed by the ‘Mazurka’ and ‘Czardas’ of Act I, and the ‘Galop’ with which the ballet ends. Both had been a part of European ballroom and social dancing since the middle of the century but were making their first appearance on the stages of Western Europe. The distinctive accented second beat, the proud bearing, stamping and clicking heels of the ‘Mazurka’ were familiar. In the ‘Czardas’, the melancholy opening ‘Lasu’ followed by the rapid ‘Friska’, all employing characteristically inward-turning steps ‘en dedans’, were known to appreciative contemporary audiences. The ‘Galop’, a German round dance in 2/4 time, and characterized by a hop at the end of every phrase, had been incorporated into the ballroom ‘Quadrille’ and was a part of the social repertoire. There are dances of other countries as well. A Spanish ‘Bolero’, a Scottish ‘Gigue’ danced in Act II served as vehicles for balletic virtuosity and furthered the notion of ethnic complexity.

The ballet’s story is that of a young and happily betrothed couple, Franz and Swanilda, to whom we are introduced in Act I. Their story unfolds in the sunlit square of a village in Galicia, a region of southwestern Poland and northwestern Ukraine. It is soon apparent that the couple’s affectionate intentions are threatened by the appearance of a young woman on the balcony of the house of Dr. Coppélius, the madly eccentric toymaker. Fickle Frantz is instantly smitten by her beauty and, to the annoyance of Swanilda, begins a flirtation. The mayor of the village appears to announce that in honor of the dedication of the new town bell, he will give a generous dowry to all who marry the next day. Hoping to learn the true nature of Franz feelings toward her, Swanilda tests the wheat’s prophetic properties. She shakes the stalk of wheat and listens for its rattle. Hearing nothing, she sadly concludes that her lover is false.

Dr. Coppélius emerges from his house and in jostling throng of merry-makers drops the key to his door. Swanilda finds the key and with her companions decides to visit the toymaker’s strange dwellings. Unknown to Swanilda and friends, Frantz, too, has determined to pay the toymaker’s daughter a visit.

In Act II the curtain rises on a dark and richly colorful workshop. Swanilda, her apprehensive friends in tow, ventures in. Discovering that the fascinating Coppélia, like the Harlequin, Chinese, Juggler and Drummer, is but a mechanical doll, they merrily set the shop in motion, a hullabaloo interrupted by the reappearance of Dr. Coppélius who chases all, except Swanilda who has hidden herself, out the door.

Assuring himself that his precious Coppélia is unharmed, the toymaker discovers Frantz invading his domain. His fury over the intrusion is mollified by Frantz’s declaration of love for his ‘daughter’, Coppélia, and soon the toymaker is struck by another idea. He genially plies Frantz with drink, and in moments the young swain lies in a stupor. Dr. Coppélius consults his manual of magic, and wheeling Coppélia into the middle of the room, he begins with an enormity of effort to transfer her, Frantz’s life force. By degrees he thrusts animation upon her until at last, with Dr. Coppélius’ final gesture, we recognize Swanilda. She has assumed the manner and costume of Coppélia, and now she mechanically does her creator’s bidding. In time Dr. Coppélius triumphantly bestows on her a soul and she is at once fully human. He commands her to dance first a ‘Bolero’, next a ‘Gigue’ and she complies, but tiring of the game demands that Frantz be awakened. Dr. Coppélius forces her back into the chamber. Quickly she sneaks out and soon is wreaking havoc through the workshop, finally flinging back the curtain of the chamber to reveal Coppélia’s unhappy condition. Frantz and Swanilda are reconciled and they make a merry escape leaving behind a shattered Dr. Coppélius.

In the ballet’s final scene we are again on the village square, now festively decorated for a wedding celebration. At the center are the villagers whose marriages will be honored with the Mayor’s dowry. The celebrating begins with an allegorical pageant, a classical tribute to the events of daily life acknowledging its diverse and complex nature in dances honoring Dawn, Day, Prayer, and Endeavor. Next come the bridesmaids saluting the marriages of the day. Helga and Armin perform a pas de deux in tribute to Harmony. The forces of War and Discord assume the stage; they are, in time, quieted by Peace. The pageant’s end is signaled in the Wedding pas de deux and the villagers salute the celebration, and the ballet’s conclusion, with a grand and vigorous ‘Galop’.

Delibes’ music was exquisitely fitted to the minutiae of the story, every action musically delineated and accounted for, and it is in part because of the detailed fitting that the ballet has survived with little alteration. Dissidents have objected to the final act, characterizing it as nonessential, and though one acknowledges the plot’s completion at the end of Act II, choreographers of modern Coppélia‘s rarely abandon the beauty of the music and glorious dance opportunities of the final scene. The State Ballet’s is Coppélia ‘entire’, and the production is enhanced by the addition of the characters of Helga and Armin, chums to Swanilda and Franz, devised by Mr. Bolender to bring a new dimension to the plot. He has choreographed for the two pairs two pas de deux to music borrowed from another Delibes ballet, Sylvia, which premiered in 1876.

To the original achievements of Delibes, Nuitter and Saint Léon the State Ballet offers new collaborative talents, long-time professional associates Ed Wittstein and Todd Bolender whose first work together yielded a Broadway production of Offenbach’s comic opera, La Belle Helene in 1963. Ed Wittstein’s work in television, for Hallmark’s Hall of Fame, brought him to Kansas in 1990 and afforded a renewal of an old friendship. The result is Coppélia, refreshed, invigorated, retaining the original structure, absorbing and acknowledging a century of interpretations, ballet which is at once traditional and new.

Mr. Wittstein’s Coppélia is colored by the language of comedy, a sunlit palette of white, yellow and orange in Acts I and II. In the toymaker’s atelier the tones are sobered malachite green, magenta, and purple. Also trained as a painter, Wittstein’s creativity for dance is born of expertise, imagination and research. In an oddly atypical painting by Egon Schiele, entitled, “Yellow City” (1914) he found a source for the jumble of angled roofs and terra cotta hue of the village scene. Schiele’s painting, according to Kirk Varndoe in Vienna, 1900, a catalogue accompanying the show of the same name a the Museum of Modern Art, “is empty yet claustrophobic…poised between the world of Hansel and Gretel and Dr. Caligari…an artist’s comment on provincial society,” pertinent perhaps to the work at hand. With these oranges, yellows and faded Chinese blues, Mr. Wittstein created costumes incorporating a border-motif suggested by the late cut-paper works of Matisse; in the costume of the Chinese Man, the designer has used a signature stroke from Picasso’s “Three Cornered Hat.” At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the elements of a rug’s design inspired those which figure in the border around the proscenium and again in the rug-hangings in the toymaker’s eclectic studio. The costumes of the dance of ‘Discord’ are Wittstein’s homage to designer, Leon Bakst. But through the artist takes pleasure in these sometimes-secret allusions, it is his intended distinction between the ballet’s fantasy and reality which offers greatest challenge. Costumes, properties, sets as designed by Mr. Wittstein are clearly artifice, their drawn black outlines emphasized their unreality. Only Dr. Coppélius is dressed realistically, and by that he is separate from the folk-fairy tale magic of the narrative. He is visually estranged in his eccentricity.

Mr. Bolender’s choreography, like the costuming and sets, moves the ballet, and Dr. Coppélius, beyond the broadly comic slapstick and buffoonery of other interpretations. His Coppélius is a figure of complexity, gently comic, disappointed and inadequate. He cannot, after all, bring his creature to life.

With the final curtain, Coppélia has come full circle. We see at its center, the richly colorful folktale framed in a gay profusion of garlands, ribbons and high spirits. The ballet is at last complete, a work of art and whole.

World Premiere: May 25, 1870, Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra, Paris, France

Kansas City Ballet Premiere: February 23, 1995, Midland Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri

All Repertory