Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A breath of fresh air and an exciting debut (ABT Coppelia, June 18th matinee)

Heading back to Lincoln Center for my second American Ballet Theatre Coppelia in less than 24 hours, I was both worried and excited.  Worried because my unpleasant experience the night before left me wondering how I could sit through another 2.5 hours of pantomime, but beyond excited to see ABT soloist Jared Matthews in his first full-length leading role dancing opposite the lovely Maria Riccetto. 

Although I think I can safely say that Coppelia is not going to be added to the list of my favorite ballets, this performance left me beaming and understanding why so many of my friends who saw it first as a child still love it so.
Maria Riccetto's eyes sparkled from the minute she stepped onto the stage as Swanilda.  She really is a beautiful ballerina.  Her pantomime registered as childish but not bratty.  This alone made the story more fun to watch unfold, but her Swanilda was also likeable and silly - as a heroine in a children's ballet should be.  My only real criticism of Riccetto is that she could use a little more power or emphasis behind each move, each step.  She has to work a little harder than say Gillian Murphy or Xiomara Reyes would to cover the stage and seems to always dance a little "small".  She had a little trouble with the backwards hops in Act III and seemed to do less solo choreography than Osipova had the night before - but that may just be the smaller scale of her movements.  But I give her high marks overall -  her graceful dancing was lovely to watch, she always stayed in character and her chemistry with Matthews was great (they're often paired together).

Matthews with Yuriko Kajiya
(photographer unknown)
As Franz, Jared Matthews (who, I should disclose, is an acquaintance of mine) gave a 100% believable performance as a leading man.  His carriage and upper body have always been beautiful, but despite what had to be a nerve wracking experience in his first full-length lead he demonstrated youthful confidence as a character and maturity as a dancer.  Matthews always seems to take the time to think about his roles, and the intent behind each movement, each gesture.  He's also terrific at relating to his partners - just from a tilt of his head to look back at her or in the way he supports going into a lift or balance, he looks like his first thought is of his ballerina and not himself - similar in that way to the wonderful Marcelo Gomes.

What was particularly exciting about Matthews' performance was not the height of his jumps - though a little bit lower than Vasiliev or Simkin - but the attention to detail and grace.  Matthews didn't sacrifice his line or the beauty of his arms in the jumps or turns - like Gomes or Jose Manuel Carreno he used his arms to accentuate and add grandeur to the movements.  He also had some impressive and exciting speed in his jetes en manege (I didn't know he had THAT skill)!  He didn't drop character once - even in the partnering sections where some men sometimes lose focus. 

And Matthews' Franz wasn't mean spirited.  Yes, he still kills the butterfly and he still flirts with Coppelia in front of Swanilda, but Matthews somehow made it all seem sympathetic and a little dopey, rather than disingenuous.  This Franz and Swanilda were playing like schoolchildren who pull each other's hair and say "I hate you" when they mean I love you.  It just worked.  The innocent way this Franz offered Swanilda the butterfly after he killed it, not understanding why she was mad, made the fact that he didn't realize Coppelia was a doll somehow more believable.  (He also didn't seem as proud when he pinned the butterfly on his vest as Simkin's Franz had - which helped.)  Even the way Matthews ran on and off stage carrying the ladder at the end of Act I was more like a boy going to call on a girl he liked than a dancer toting a big ladder around the stage twice because the choreography dictates.  It just made sense.  I can't wait until the powers that be let Matthews dance his first Siegfried in Swan Lake, or the Prince in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, or Romeo, or even Pyotr in The Bright Stream.  In some ways, Matthews reminds me a little of Ethan Stiefel - different in lines and skill at this point - but something similar in attitude and presence on stage.  Too often cast to date as a villain, he is a prince waiting to be born. Here's hoping the leadership at ABT let that happen next season.

Other notable performances of the night came from Alexei Agoudine as Dr. Coppelius, who was perhaps a little less sweet and sympathetic than Roman Zhurbin had been, but no less successful.  Jeff Golladay was absolutely terrific as the Chinese doll - I sometimes forget how high he can jump since they almost never let him do much but partner work these days.  Gemma Bond (though not in the program) sparkled as one of Swanilda's friends - to the point where I could see her dancing Swanilda herself some day. Meaghan Hinkis was adorable as Coppelia, and the JKO students were adorable for a second time in the dance of the hours - again Sabrina Ocasio and Lily Saito were particularly lovely.

Isabella Boylston gave a somewhat confusing performance as Dawn - her always gorgeous arabesques made me wish she had been cast as Prayer instead.  Her persona here didn't seem to fit with the rest of the ballet and with the similar yellow-orange costume almost looked like she was auditioning for Gamzatti in La Bayadere.  As Prayer, Zhong-Jing Fang danced with beautiful emotion but had some trouble executing the slower choreography.  Another odd moment of the day came from Joseph Phillips as the lead in the mazurka and czardas, dancing with Luciana Paris.  Luciana was sassy and sparkling but Phillips looked like he was almost asleep - his steps appeared tiny and barely to leave the ground and he had, unusually, very little presence at all - the opposite of Hammoudi the night before. 

But, on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this second showing of Coppelia much more than the one that seems to be generating the buzz from the night before.  I think we can expect great things to come from Jared Matthews, especially if he's given the right coaching and opportunities along the way!


  1. Totally agree about Jared. I can pinpoint his breakout date to his first performance with Maria Riccetto in Clark Tippet's "Some Assembly Required" and then he just took off. I have to see all of his performances.

  2. Agreed - I usually pick my tickets by principal cast but then am sad when I wind up missing Jared. Hopefully soon HE will be principal cast and it won't be an issue. :)