“Coppelia” has long been regarded as one of the world’s most beloved story ballets, staged across the globe since its premiere more than a century ago. But in the United States in recent decades, its dancing dolls, mysterious inventor and spunky heroine have often been relegated to recital halls. Earlier this month, students at Rockville’s American Dance Institute offered a performance for kids, by kids. On Tuesday, Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet opens a six-day run of “Coppelia” at the Kennedy Center aimed at balletomanes of all ages.
In books and movies, references to the ballet abound. But just how well do you know “Coppelia”? The Washington Post asked five dancers, teachers and ballet experts questions that provide a guide to a classic.
1. True or False: In most versions of “Coppelia,” the title character never dances.
Answer: True. Coppelia is a doll. The ballet’s main characters are Swanhilda, the Lena Dunham-esque “It” girl of a nameless European town, and her fiance, Franz. Their relationship is jeopardized when Franz becomes infatuated with Coppelia, the life-size doll created by Dr. Coppelius, the village eccentric. Various productions portray the doll in different ways. In the newest Paris Opera Ballet version (released on DVD last year), Coppelia is a projection, but more commonly, she’s a motionless dancer. At the American Dance Institute’s “Coppelia,” school director Erin Du had the alternate Swanhilda play Coppelia. “All she had to do was mechanically wave from a window,” Du said.
2. When and where did “Coppelia” premiere?
A) 1884 in St. Petersburg.
B) 1870 in Paris.
C) 1906 in London.
D) 1877 in Rome.
Answer: B. “ ‘Coppelia’ was originally created by the French choreographer and ballet master Arthur Saint-Leon,” said Meg Booth, the Kennedy Center’s director of dance programing. “The work — unusual as a full-length comedic ballet offering romance, delight and escape — was well-received during a tense period of social and political instability. A decade later, in the 1880s, Marius Petipa (one of ballet’s most influential choreographers) staged his own version in Russia.”
3. What is the story based on?
A) A Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
B) A Victor Hugo novella.
C) A Hans Christian Andersen fable.
D) An E.T.A. Hoffmann story.
Answer: D. Local dance historian George Jackson points out that both “Coppelia” and “The Nutcracker” are based on Hoffmann’s stories. “Hoffmann was fascinated by the magic of science, and he questioned what we can or can’t explain. The old Ballets Russes version of ‘Coppelia’ and the Balanchine-Danilova version danced by New York City Ballet take the magic somewhat seriously. Others treat it as mere foolishness,” Jackson said.
4. When was “Coppelia” last performed at the Kennedy Center, and by which company?
A) In 2004, by the Washington Ballet.
B) In 2001, by the National Ballet of Cuba.
C) In 2009, by the American Ballet Theatre.
D) In 2007, by the Maryland Youth Ballet.
Answer: A. The Washington Ballet presented “Coppelia” in 2004, with choreography by Septime Webre and Charla Genn, after Petipa, Saint-Leon and other traditional versions. Maki Onuki and Kara Cooper, who are still with the company, played the doll. The last company before that to perform “Coppelia” at the Kennedy Center was the National Ballet of Cuba, back in 2001.
Booth notes that the ballet was quite popular in the 1970s. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland danced the lead roles with the ABT in 1974. George Balanchine brought the New York City Ballet’s full-length “Coppelia” to Washington in 1976 and 1979.
5. Who was the original Swanhilda in Balanchine’s “Coppelia?
A) Suzanne Farrell.
C) Patricia McBride.
D) Gelsey Kirkland.
Answer: C. “Oh, why that was me!” McBride said, speaking by phone from the North Carolina Dance Theatre, where the former New York City Ballet dancer co-directs a company and school. In 1973, Balanchine picked her to star in “Coppelia.” There was an understudy — Kirkland — but Balanchine never let her go on. McBride danced Swanhilda up to six times a week. The first two acts were reconstructed by Alexandra Danilova, a former Ballets Russes dancer, while the third act was Balanchine’s choreography.
“The music is so wonderful, I think that’s why Mr. Balanchine loved ‘Coppelia,’ ” McBride said. “Madame Danilova had been one of the greatest Swanhildas of our time. She and Mr. Balanchine must have been in their 70s, but they would just dance away in the studio. I felt so lucky to be there, watching, and to be part of all that history.”
6. True or False: Franz, Swanhilda’s fiance, would make a make a much more fun (and reliable) date than other storybook ballet heroes.
Somewhat subjective, but true. “Franz is a normal guy,” Du said. “Most romantic 19th-century ballets have a prince or some sort of aristocrat as their male lead. ‘Coppelia’ is a charming, witty ballet that allows the audience to relate to him a little easier, perhaps, than the other romantic leading men.”
Luis Torres of the Washington Ballet put it this way: “Franz is a younger and more playful guy. He’s not a romantic dreamer or a philosopher looking for love.”
7. Who was Enrico Cecchetti?
A) An Italian racecar driver who bankrolled the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo.
B) A ballet master who established the “Italian technique.”
C) A baroque composer who wrote the original music for “Coppelia.”
D) The “Argentine Nijinksy” famous for dancing the role of Franz.
Answer: B. “Simply put, Enrico Cecchetti was a man who devised a technique of ballet dancing also referred to as the Italian technique,” Du said. He’s regarded as one of the world’s greatest ballet teachers; he also worked at the czar’s imperial theaters in Russia from 1887 until 1902. He served as second ballet master under Petipa and gets a choreography credit in the version of “Coppelia” that the Bolshoi will perform at the Kennedy Center.
“Cecchetti may have contributed the pantomime passages, particularly those for Dr. Coppelius,” Jackson said. “He was a famous mime performer. . . . My guess, and it is just a guess, is that Saint-Leon was responsible for the contrast between ballet dancing and folk character dancing. The rich variety of the step vocabulary and how the ballet builds may be Petipa’s doing.”
8. When was the premiere of the version of “Coppelia” that the Bolshoi Ballet will perform at the Kennedy Center?
Answer: A. The Bolshoi will be presenting a reconstruction of “Coppelia” that debuted in 2009. It’s based on a detailed notation of the Russian version recorded by Vladimir Stepanov in the late 19th century. In 1917, with revolution boiling, a ballet master escaped Russia with the Stepanov volumes, which eventually ended up collecting dust at a Harvard University library. Dancer-scholar Sergei Vikharev came to Boston and began studying the volumes in the mid-1990s. “Vikharev spent considerable time learning how to decode the complex notations and in 2009 restaged Petipa’s ‘Coppelia’ for the Bolshoi,” Booth said. “Through a little magic and luck, ‘Coppelia’ was brought back to life.”
9. Which star dances an excerpt from “Coppelia” in a movie role?
A) Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”
B) Moira Shearer in “The Red Shoes.”
C) Mikhail Baryshnikov in “The Turning Point.”
D) Ethan Stiefel in “Center Stage.”
Torres: “C. ‘The Turning Point.’ ”
Jackson: “I think Moira Shearer dances a few steps from ‘Coppelia’ in ‘The Red Shoes.’ ”
Answer: B. Jackson is correct. A sequence from “Coppelia” is also featured in “First Position,” a new documentary about ballet competitions.
10. Which member of the “Baby-sitters Club,” the fictional group of teenagers in Ann M. Martin’s series, danced in “Coppelia”?
Booth: “I don’t know; I didn’t read the books.”
Torres: “I don’t know! I have no babies, and I have never babysat.”
Du: “C. Jessi.”
Answer: C. Du is correct, but she admitted that she had to Google the answer because she didn’t spend the late 1980s reading the “Baby-sitter’s Club” books; she read the “Bad News Ballet” series instead.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
May 29-June 3 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324. Tickets $29-$150.