Saturday, April 14, 2012

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Closes Season With "Coppelia" (Review)

by Chris Steele
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's "Coppelia" (Photo by Rich Sofranko)

In its final piece of the season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is performing the classic ballet Coppelia running this weekend April 13-15 Downtown (Pittsburgh) at the Benedum Center. While the story and music date back to the mid 19th century, the whimsical, playful banter between it’s lovers Swanilda and Franz can translate to any generation, old or young.  PBT’s portrayal of this classical tale has a life and vibrancy that is perfect for a family night out or a date night with a loved one.

The ballet opens in the village square where Swanilda and Franz (played by real life husband wife duo Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski) are trying to show the other their affection.  Swanilda’s bravado leads them into a sort of dance off, trying to one up each other, perhaps Franz is trying to impress, but Swanilda is just having fun with him.  Suddenly, a peculiar young girl catches his eye from Dr Coppelious’ workshop.  This only stews Swanilde’s feistiness and curiosity.  When Dr. Coppelious carelessly loses his key, Swanilda and her bevy sneak into his workshop to investigate.  Unbeknownst to her, the old man returns shortly thereafter.  To further complicate things, Franz later sneaks into the window to woo the young girl.  Act two takes place in Dr. Coppelious’ workshop.  Swanilda and her friends discover the young girl is just one of many life size toy robots.  When the doctor returns he chases the young women out, but our heroine hides in the closet with the beautiful young robot. Perhaps out of spite to her betrothed or just because she is that mischievous Swanilda dons the clothes of Coppelia and plays a bit of a ruse on the old man.  Hilarity ensues when the doctor gets Franz drunk (shortly after Franz proclaims his love for Coppelious’ toy robot) and attempts to use a spell to steal Franz’ life essence and give it to Coppelia.  Swanilda (pretending to be Coppelia) takes this opportunity to have fun with the old man. Ultimately the young couple get married and everyone lives happily ever after.

A strong supporting cast of dancers provides nice commentary around the Swanilda and Franz.  Nurlan Abougaliev (Heinz) was one that caught my eye. He had fantastic form and showed some great athleticism in both his leaps and his footwork.  The cast of Swanilda’s friends were also enjoyable to watch.  While the program may not have had a name for each young girl, I guarantee that each dancer had a name and back-story for their persona. Characters like those become a window dressing for the leads, productions that give each person on stage their own life breathes a life into the show itself.

Integral to a good production of Coppelia is a likeable, adorable Swanilda. Her character breaks the mold of the classic ballet female.  When compared to the leading ladies from Swan Lake or other classic ballets, her independence and feistiness is in stark contrast.  Furthering the importance of a Swanilda that the audience enjoys and is rooting for.   Kochis’ portrayal was a perfect fit.  Immediately annihilating the fourth wall, her smile brings the audience into the palm of her hand.  A fantastic sense of comedic timing is not something one might expect from a principal dancer, but hers was without a doubt “on pointe”, utilizing slapstick gesturing that fit right at home with the forced prospective and almost Commedia feel of the piece.   Humor aside, Ms. Kochis’ form and discipline was both mesmerizing and inspiring to watch.  In the closing moments of the ballet, Swanilda turns, in pristine form, like a porcelain ballerina on a music box.  My immediate though was that every little girl wants to be that priceless heirloom spinning on her mother’s music box.  Watching her spin, on pointe, for what seemed to be an eternity and yet somehow could never be long enough… brought my biggest smile of the night.

The plot is simple and timeless, as are the characters, which leaves a lot of room for a production to inject it’s own personality and vitality.  PBT projects, through this show, that they have a fun, whimsical corps that is willing to take down the staunch view that ballet can be stiff and boring.  At no point, however, do they compromise form, elegance, or technique.  Instead they instill a fun, playful atmosphere into a professional package.  This show is a smile waiting to happen.  I recommend you stop by and find yours.

Style & Wisdom also featured an interview with Alexandra Kochis earlier this week about her role as Swanhilda.  If you missed it, it's available here

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