Created in 1870, ‘Coppelia’ is the freshest ballet around


Artem Ovcharenko (playing Frantz), center left, and Nina Kaptsova (playing Swanilda), perform a scene together during Bolshoi Ballet's performance of Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti's Coppelia at The Kennedy Center. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

It might seem curious that a bouncy little pixie in a bright apron and a peasant blouse is ballet’s Wonder Woman, but this is the revelation of “Coppelia,” the comic ballet that, in a genre full of victims, gives us instead an action hero.”

In the central role of Swanilda, the jealous fiancee who isn’t above disguise, deception and breaking and entering to win back her boyfriend, “Coppelia” has had a powerful female figure at its core since its creation in 1870. The wattage soars when Swanilda is danced by Nina Kaptsova, as she was at Tuesday’s opening of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production at the Kennedy Center.

Kaptsova darts through this physically demanding ballet on a stream of radiant energy. Her stamina — she rarely leaves the stage during the work’s three acts — is as impressive as her natural charm, musicality and high spirits. As she watches her Franz (the endearing Artem Ovcharenko) gaze adoringly at a mysterious woman seen in the home of Dr. Coppelius, the town’s eccentric inventor, Kaptsova tells us exactly how she feels with a tart toss of her shoulder.

This ballet crackles with personality and activity, but there are also delicate moments of stillness that are unusual to see from this typically full-throttle company. At times, the corps is sculpted into iconic romantic-era poses, coquettishly tilted at the waist. A wonderful tableau of suppressed vitality greets Swanilda when she barges into Coppelius’s workshop to find a wizard, Pierrot and other life-size dolls whose quietness is especially poignant next to the ballerina’s pizazz.

This new staging of “Coppelia,” by Sergei Vikharev, premiered in 2009, based on how Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti retooled the original French version (by Arthur Saint-Leon) for Russian dancers. Seen here for the first time in this country, it’s an extraordinary achievement, full of color and life and the feeling of something newly minted. Everything about it seems fresh, from the shimmering Delibes score to the dancers’ energy — you want to stomp along with their mazurka — and the crisp fabrics of the folkloric costumes, inspired by the festive attire of what was known as Galicia, a region overlapping Poland and Ukraine.

The folk dances, which are among the highlights of this ballet, take on a stirring significance at the end, when the villagers form a double ring to encircle the newly married Swanilda and Franz, spinning around them in a communal embrace. It’s a thrilling vision of the life force that old Coppelius searched for in vain, hoping to spark artificially, and which Swanilda possesses in spades. Here is the eternal dance, whirling everyone into order.

The vibrant colors that fill the Opera House stage echo the theme of freedom that boils through the ballet. The body was liberated in “Coppelia” as never before, as ballerinas gained speed and strength in the latter part of the 19th century. With her light jumps, bright footwork and swift changes of direction, Kaptsova’s Swanilda is rarely still, and the power and agility of her precise, tireless legs mark her as a free spirit.

She is no Giselle, undone by rejection. Swanilda ropes her gal pals into storming Coppelius’s house and confronting her rival. It turns out the heartbreaker is just a pretty doll, one of many Coppelius has created. In fact, in a plot twist that reveals “Coppelia’s” kinship with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” written several decades earlier, Coppelius attempts to bring the doll — his child, his Coppelia — to life. For this, he has drugged Franz and plans to siphon off his spirit. Crafty Swanilda slips into Coppelia’s clothes, confuses the old man, trashes his workshop, rescues Franz — and wins the adoration of the entire village.

If Coppelius was searching for the secret of life, Swanilda spelled it out for him: a woman with brains and a goal.

Coppelia

will be performed by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday afternoon, with cast changes.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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