San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
8 March 2016
It’s a treat to be in the theater when a dancer achieves a triumphant performance. The San Francisco Ballet audience enjoyed that experience on Tuesday evening, when Frances Chung opened the company’s midseason run of George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova’s Coppélia at the War Memorial Opera House.
Chung and her partner, Vitor Luiz, reprised their roles as the petulant lovers Swanilda and Franz from the SFB debut of this production in 2011, when it was last performed here. Balanchine and Danilova created their version in 1974, and SFB revived it in partnership with Pacific Northwest Ballet, which shared the investment in exquisite new sets and costumes by Roberta Guidi di Bagno.
Bowdlerized from a nasty E.T.A. Hoffmann story about Dr. Coppelius, who plucks the eyes of children who won’t go to sleep, Coppélia is a mistaken-identity farce of a boy, Franz, who develops a crush on a life-size doll and nearly loses his real-life love, Swanilda. Comedy is one of SF Ballet’s strongest suits, and the entire company contributed to the success of this balletic entertainment.
Chung has only become more precise in the past five years, gaining full control of her attack – her sissones flicked like birds’ wings, her grands battements en pointe sailed skyward, she balanced arabesques through full musical phrases. The risk these days is technique for its own sake, but Chung was never gratuitous; she harnessed the bravado of a prima ballerina to serve the sunny, silly joy of the story.
Luiz was an impish Franz, foolish enough to take liquor from a creepy old man but not too cavalier to learn how to win back his girl. While his leaps are perhaps not as lofty as last time around, his landings are soft as a cat’s, his double tours whip-fast, his beaten cabrioles carried on arcs of momentum. His partnering in the Act III wedding pas de deux was chivalrous and strong, supporting Chung through feather-light shoulder lifts and vexing arabesques penchées on pointe.
The heart of Coppélia is Act II, when Franz, Swanilda and her friends sneak into Dr. Coppelius’ workshop. As fine an actor as he is a dancer, Pascal Molat imbued pathos as well as whimsy into Dr. Coppelius. Molat’s Coppelius is a man who longs for connection, who is humiliated by the young folk of the town and retreats to his workshop to create the friends he doesn’t have.
Molat is also very, very funny, with a slow burn that grew into a conflagration over the course of the act. Comedy is actually one of SF Ballet’s strengths, and the company consistently shows masterful timing and the superb discipline not to give away punch lines. Together, Molat, Luiz and Chung built a pyramid of comedy, gleefully triggering chaos with all of the dolls in motion while Luiz sobers up and Coppelius chases after Swanilda. Répétiteur Judith Fugate coached them expertly. Molat will retire at the end of this season, and his absence will be felt.
Speaking of discipline, Grace Choi was statue-still as Coppélia, while Benjamin Freemantle, John-Paul Simoens, Blake Kessler and Francisco Sebastião were mechanical marvels as the astrologer, juggler, acrobat and Chinese Automatons. Lauren Strongin led two dozen adorable SFB School ballerinas in the Dedication of the Bells, and the students were the image of professionalism even though they looked about eight to twelve years old. They created formations around Sasha De Sola, Sofiane Sylve and Koto Ishihara in the allegorical Dawn, Prayer and Spinner solos. Jennifer Stahl was especially fierce as Discord, partnered by Hansuke Yamamoto as War.
Martin West led the SF Ballet Orchestra through Delibes’ enchanting score. The production next moves up to Seattle for an April run at Pacific Northwest Ballet, where it will surely continue to delight.