Working on Coppélia is a bit nostalgic for me, as it appears to be a marker of time in my life as a dancer. For starters, as a young child I remember listening to the album of Coppélia that my mother had. I remember the pictures of dancers on the album almost exactly. Aside from The Nutcracker, Coppélia is one of the first ballets I remember seeing. I am not sure which ballet company it was, but it was in San Jose, CA. I mostly remember the Mazurka with the energetic dancers in their boots.
In 1982, at the age of 12, I had taken some ballet classes to complement my tap and jazz training and decided to attend a summer dance workshop at a local ballet studio. Wearing my very eighties dance attire I found myself in a serious ballet class given by teachers from the San Francisco Ballet School. Those from my hometown were all so happy to see a boy who danced. The director of the school asked me if I would be in their upcoming production of Coppélia. I said yes, as long as I didn’t have to wear tights, and she agreed. The choreography was by this little, old, vivacious Russian woman who we called Madame Valentina Belova (another story in itself: click here for more about Madame Valentina). I was to be a puppet in the toy shop and the costume people made a costume for me with pants. However, somehow I ended up in tights for a waltz section. I remember being so embarrassed by how skinny my legs looked. Toothpicks with knee joints!
Fast forward 15 years to 1997. As a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was cast to dance the role of Franz in Kent Stowell’s production of Coppélia with Patricia Barker as my Swanilda. I really enjoyed dancing that role with the light-hearted, comic mime to tell the story. I studied performance tapes of former PNB principal dancers Michael Auer and Benjamin Houk dancing the role of Franz to pick up effective nuances for the story telling. I remember the choreography for the male variation in the third act being suited to my abilities. I also remember stunning performances by Alexandra Dickson and Melanie Skinner in the Prayer and Dawn variations. Julie Tobiason was the perfect Swanilda and Uko Gorter amazed me with his heartfelt and humorous interpretation of Dr. Coppelius.
Now, 13 years later, I’ve been cast as Dr. Coppelius in PNB’s upcoming revival of George Balanchine’s production of Coppélia. For me, dancing the role of Dr. Coppelius has been an opportunity to do more of what I’ve always enjoyed. And that’s acting as a character while telling a story through mime. In Coppélia, Dr. Coppelius reveals more depth than most character roles. He’s old, lives alone and makes toys. His pride and joy is his doll named Coppélia. Just that much information itself gives an actor so much to work with.
Judith Fugate has been setting Coppélia on PNB and has been wonderful. It’s clear that she loves her work as a stager. There are four men cast as Dr. Coppelius. Judy has given us all the information we need and has let each of us run with our own interpretations of the role. Each one of us really comes across as Dr. Coppelius in our own way. It’s interesting to see. I find it helpful to watch others to see how things read from an audience perspective. But, in the end, I’ve found that I have to remain true to my own interpretation of the role and not let someone else’s interpretation influence me.
My Swanilda and Franz are Mara Vinson and James Moore. I adore the two of them and am happy to be part of a cast with them. They both are so professional and committed to their work. I have a lot of respect for them. I’m sure they will both dance their roles beautifully.
The costume shop has been working incredibly hard on the new costumes. They really amaze me with their talents. The set team has done an amazing job. It’s a real team effort to put together a new production and everyone involved is excited to see it come to life. The whole process up until now has been such a joy as I’m sure the performances will be too.
Featured photo: PNB dancers Jeff Stanton and Mara Vinson in George Balanchine’s Coppélia, photo © Angela Sterling.