It's taken me a while to write this review of Friday night's Coppelia at American Ballet Theatre. While technically well executed, and despite one wonderful individual performance, I can think of only maybe one or two evenings at the theater that I actively disliked more than this one. I kept hoping some distance over the past few days would change my mind. But it hasn't. So I thought at least I should tell you why.
As Swanilda, Natalia Osipova (the visiting Bolshoi principal) clearly was well practiced in the role. Her backward hops en pointe in Act III and pirouettes were amazing. The beginning of Act II, where she pretends to be the doll Coppelia - before the doll really comes to life - was perfect. But for the rest of the ballet, I found her almost unwatchable. Perhaps I was sitting too close in the orchestra, since many other reviewers seemed to love her rendition, but I found her Swanilda to be a bratty and almost mean child, and her facial expressions made me uncomfortable. She often dances with her mouth agape, and her smiles seemed more mischievous than happy. I suspect part of my dislike may be because Roman Zhurbin gave an absolutely fantastic and sympathetic performance as the old toymaker, Dr. Coppelius. Osipova (and Daniil Simkin, playing Franz) seemed to really enjoy tormenting a sweet, silly, sad old man who is in love with his creation (Zhurbin's Dr. Coppelius is sympathetic even despite the darkness of the plot in which he thinks he is taking Franz's life essence and giving it to the doll). Even in Act III where Franz and Swanilda supposedly apologize to Dr. Coppelius for breaking into his home, causing mayhem and playing a trick on him, they didn't seem at all sorry but so disingenuous that I almost wanted to slap them from my seat.
But I had other problems with Osipova's performance too. I didn't understand a lot of her pantomime - and this ballet has a lot of it. Her acting seemed extremely hammy and forced (though again maybe this worked from the upper seat levels). Her technical ability in Act III, for me, seemed to overpower the character and it seemed more like a guest performance of a variation on So You Think You Can Dance or a gala than part of the story. And perhaps most importantly, I felt she had no chemistry at all with Simkin.
As Franz, Daniil Simkin for me had a lot of the same acting issues as Osipova (his facial expressions looked like someone had told him - "hey make that face here and that one there" - and he didn't really try to relate to the character). They are both showy dancers who elicit a lot of gasps from an audience with their technical power and fearless, almost reckless, jumps and tricks. However, based on this performance, Simkin is years away from being a credible leading man in my eyes. He's a great soloist - capable of stunning solo variations and bringing smaller characters such as the gypsy in Don Quixote to life - but here he lacked gravitas as well as connection to his partner. His partnering skills are behind his other abilities and it showed.
I recently watched an interview with actor James McAvoy where he was describing that he had to learn how to be a leading man, to drive the narrative, all on his own. Although in this ballet Swanilda is by far the driving force, it almost felt like Simkin's Franz could have been written out of the story entirely and it would have still made sense. Swanilda would simply have gone up to Coppelius' attic because the doll wouldn't wave to her in Act I, and she would have pretended to be Coppelia and make fun of Dr. Coppelius just because she was a mean-spirited brat. Since Franz and Swanilda here seemed way too young and not at all in love, their wedding pas de deux made no sense (I'm surprised any first time viewer would have known it was a wedding without the program notes) and could have been left out.
Another factor that worked against Simkin Friday night was the immense presence of Alexandre Hammoudi as the lead Mazurka/Czardas dancer. He swaggered onto that stage like he owned it (just coming off a good showing in The Bright Stream couldn't have hurt). The somewhat boring choreography of the corps sections looked exciting on his long legs and sharp feet and he brought real energy to the part. (It made me remember that Ethan Stiefel was originally slated to play Franz opposite Osipova and I think he would have had the same kind of swagger and energy.)
On a positive note, the corps girls were adorable Friday night. I was particularly over the moon to see Nicole Graniero back on stage after her injury absence. Soloist Simone Messmer gave a sparkling performance as Dawn - boy did that crown and gown look great on her. There's something about her arms that continue to baffle me (I can't tell if maybe they're a little short proportionately - or her hands maybe?) but overall I thought her variation was gorgeous. It didn't fit at all with the style of Simkin or Osipova, but at that point I was so happy to see something I liked I didn't care. Hee Seo as Prayer also looked beautiful as always, and her port de bras in the arabesques were stunning. She did seem to have trouble on I think the left leg and stumbled a little, though - I wondered if she was still fighting back from injury.
Arron Scott was terrific and sharp as the Chinese doll in Act II, and stood out in a good way in the corps scenes as well. My favorite part of the evening other than Zhurbin may have been the dance of the hours danced by the little JKO school students. One in particular (often placed downstage right) that I'm pretty sure was Sabrina Ocasio was particularly lovely and graceful. Caroline Duprot also deserves a mention for doing a terrific job as Coppelia - her small part in Act I was exceptionally doll-like.
I think all said, I'm one of those people who wants to feel the story in a story ballet. That's where Friday night's performance left me cold.
It's not that I dislike Osipova outright either, like some reviewers. I sincerely enjoyed her in Giselle two years ago and again last year in Romeo and Juliet (though the latter not as much as the former, but not many for me come close to Ferri or Dvorovenko as Juliet). In both of those performances, however, I was seated in the rear of the orchestra and neither character smiles as much as Swanilda. Both characters are young, as here, but she has surprising chemistry with David Hallberg that made those characters sympathetic, tragic and appealing. While similar in showy style and gymnastic explosiveness, I have now seen Osipova in Simkin together in two productions and I'm pretty sure I would never like to see them cast together again. They have no discernible chemistry, and Simkin is much too dainty a partner for her.
It's not that I dislike Coppelia as a ballet either, as it turns out. For more on that, though, you'll have to wait (not too long) for my review of Saturday's matinee starring soloists Maria Riccetto and Jared Matthews.