If enjoyable, cloudless, accessible escape is what you're after -- and which of us could not use some in these anxious times -- you could do worse than American Ballet Theatre's newly restored, bubbly "Coppelia."
Out of the troupe's repertory for six years but reintroduced in a winsome new production at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, this staple of late-19th-century ballet -- its most durable romantic comedy, enhanced by Leo Delibes' infectious score -- can be interpreted in a variety of ways. ABT's present version, with choreography credited to Enrique Martinez after the original staging by Arthur Saint-Leon, is pure froth, with an accent on humor, polished, ebullient dancing, and fleet, lightweight dramaturgy.
Martinez originally mounted the ballet for ABT in 1968. The new production isn't substantially different from the old, either choreographically or in theatrical emphasis. But it has purged all trace of the darker, more metaphysical overtones that it once at least alluded to, and that lend some other versions a more intellectually pithy veneer. The plot of the original Paris production (in 1870, with Saint-Leon's choreography) had been drawn from an E.T.A. Hoffmann tale containing plenty of shadowy subtexts. Some latter-day ballet masters have pounced on these to justify adventurous variants, singling out the ballerina-doll duality of the heroine, or Dr. Coppelius as the prototype of the deranged artist, as thematic springboards. Martinez and ABT, in this latest collaboration, go all out for allegory-free diversion.
The choice is reflected in the beamingly attractive decor by Tony Straiges. The first act set -- depicting a town square in a style evoking doll house quaintness, colored in buttery yellows and fruity pastels -- prompted a deserving burst of applause as the curtain rose. The complementary, exquisitely detailed costumes by Patricia Zipprodt merit equal tribute. So does Thomas Skelton's genial lighting, full of subtle strokes, like the gradual brightening as the disguised Swanilda makes the doll Coppelia appear to come to life in Act 2. But like Martinez's staging, Straiges' set eschews the tale's Faustian implications in this same act, set in Dr. Coppelius's toy workshop. Straiges gives us charmingly fanciful marionettes and dolls, but no heavy rafters, musty recesses or other suggestions of mysterious or infernal power.
"Coppelia" depends largely on three main characters -- Swanilda, her swain Franz and Dr. Coppelius -- and the ABT opening night casting was superbly apt in respect to all of them. Cheryl Yeager was a fresh, charming, fittingly spunky and clever Swanilda, and her dancing was as crisp, feathery and agile as we've ever seen it. Her mime, too, was as sprightly and charming as one could ask. In Julio Bocca -- in his first Franz for ABT -- she had a partner with as ample a store of virtuosic fireworks and controlled energy as any male dancer now before the public, and one who, to boot, is naturally suited to the youthful, guileless ardor of the part. And Terry Orr's fussy, cranky but adorable Dr. Coppelius remains as much a triumph of comic characterization as it was in earlier ABT seasons.
The entire cast danced well. The big, familiar ensemble numbers -- the "Mazurka," led by Kathleen Moore and Roger Van Fleteren, the "Czardas," led by Bocca and Elizabeth Dunn, and the "Dance of the Hours" -- all looked exceptionally well rehearsed, without any dampening of verve. The solo variations of the finale -- "Aurora," performed by Leslie Browne, and "Prayer," by Christine Dunham -- were also neatly executed, but without much expressive coloration.
Conductor Jack Everly led the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in a notably brisk but graceful and affectionate rendering of the music. It was particularly gratifying to have the "Mazurka," as well as Yeager's Act 2 "Bolero" and "Scottish Dance," not rushed to death as they so often were in the past -- a boon both to the music itself and the dancing which rests on it.
The company will present four more casts of principals in "Coppelia" between tonight and next Thursday, each of which gives promise of adding a distinctive personal flavor to the ballet. In ABT's past, "Coppelia" was long a public favorite; the new production appears to have all the requisites to assure renewal of its popularity.