Tiny Dancer

Ben Stevenson’s Comedic Romp Coppélia Returns After a Decade

Houston Ballet’s artistic director emeritus gives us a laugh-out-loud ballet.

By Olivia Flores Alvarez May 22, 2019

Houston Ballet Principals Karina González and Ian Casady as Swanilda and Dr. Coppélius in Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia.

You won’t see much of Coppélia, the character, in ​Coppélia,​ the ballet. You will, however, see lots of spirited dancing, colorful, elaborate costumes, and an exquisite set.

With choreography by Ben Stevenson, Houston Ballet’s artistic director emeritus, ​the story follows two young lovers, Swanhilda (Karina González on opening night, alternating with Yuriko Kajiya ) and Franz (Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Chun Wai Chan alternating), who see Coppélia in her window overlooking the town square. Swanhilda, a feisty and somewhat capricious girl, gives her a friendly wave or three and is then insulted by the girl’s lack of response. For Franz, the indifference breeds ardor. 

Little do they know that the title character, performed by Houston Ballet Academy Professional Program 2 student Carolina Valverdein, is a life-like doll created by Dr. Coppelius, a wizened old man who hopes to pass her off as his daughter. Coppelius (played by Ian Casady on opening night, with Christopher Coomer alternating) has placed the motionless and picture-perfect Coppélia  on display. She sits there, completely still, with a book in her hands, for the first half of the Act I, and then, poof, she’s gone.

Act II opens to Dr. Coppelius’ workshop, filled with his weird mechanical figures. Swanhilda and her friends have made their way inside, looking for the snooty Coppélia and discovered that she’s just a life-sized doll. The doctor finds them and chases them away, except for Swanhilda, who hides.

Just as the doctor chases the last girl out, Franz comes climbing through the window to woo Coppélia. After a bit of a scuffle, the doctor pretends to accept the young man as a suitor to his daughter. During a supposedly celebratory drink, Coppelius drugs Franz and proceeds to steal Franz’s life force, attempting to transfer it to the inanimate doll (now Swanhilda in disguise).

Swanhilda pretends to come alive as Coppélia, delighting Dr. Coppelius. Even as a straight-kneed, gangly doll, Gonzalez is enchanting. She blunders around the workshop a bit, performing a bit of a Spanish dance and then a Scottish one at the doctor’s command. As she twirls awkwardly around the room, she manages to “accidentally” swat at him, then “accidentally” smack him a few times before innocently returning to her frozen stance. Still, the doctor is ecstatic: His Coppélia is alive. Well, alive-ish. 

His happiness is short lived, however, as the newly animated Coppélia continues to whirl around, breaking all of his mechanical creations. Leaving the doctor in despair among the wreckage, Swanhilda revives Franz, and the two escape.

There’s very little left to the storyline in Act III. Basically, it’s just Swanhilda and Franz getting married. The end. There is, however, some especially magnificent dancing.

Artists of Houston Ballet in Ben Stevenson’s Coppélia.

Ben Stevenson’s comedic choreography makes ​Coppélia​ a lighthearted romp, despite Dr. Coppelius’ soul-stealing shenanigans. But as lighthearted as it is, ​the ballet​ is deceptively difficult to perform. It takes considerable acting skill to play a clownish character, such as the doctor, without seeming a clown. And while the choreography isn’t overly athletic, it is exacting. There are lots of lifts, especially during the villagers’ folk dancing, but they’re low lifts, rarely going above waist height. The audience sees lots of petticoats as the male villagers upend the women, swinging them around—but again, the lifts are low.

In terms of individual performance, Swanhilda and Franz are at the center of everything, and González and Yoshiyama shine. González enchants during her solos; Yoshiyama is at his leading-man best during his. And together, in several pas de deux, the two are absolutely captivating. In Act III, Stevenson gives them free rein. González and Yoshiyama both deliver several satisfying quick-turn combinations, with Yoshiyama performing an especially strong round of barrel turns. Act III also features two of the show’s highlights: Yuriko Kajiya gives an elegant performance in Prayer​ (Jessica Collado alternates) and several of the company’s women dancers are equally impressive in the ​Dance of the Hours.

The ballet features excellent character dancing throughout. From the cantankerous Dr. Coppelius doddering across the stage to the innkeeper’s wife (Shaelynn Estrada) teetering meekly along behind her husband to the priest (Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson) who shuffles around trying to keep the peace among the volatile villagers, each character is precisely captured. (Estrada and Guillemot-Rodgerson are both from the company’s corps de ballet). Even the villagers who crowd the town square and Swanhilda’s gaggle of friends (artists of the Houston Ballet and Houston Ballet II) present distinct personalities.

No review of ​Coppélia​ would be complete without noting the brilliant costume and set design by the late Desmond Heeley. The villagers’ intricate, colorful costumes were impressive by the variety of outfits. The sheer navy blue gowns worn by the women in ​Dance of the Hours seemed to be sprinkled with stardust.

The town square, the setting for Act I and Act III, made up of a church and Dr. Coppelius’ and Swanhilda’s house fronts, was impressive and skillfully constructed. The doctor’s workshop, the setting for Act II, however, drew gasps and a smattering of applause as the curtain opened to reveal the soaring ceiling and weathered wood walls of the room.

It’s been more than a decade since Houston Ballet last performed Stevenson’s ​Coppélia.​ Here’s hoping it won’t be another before we see it again.

Thru May 26. Tickets from $25. Wortham Theater Center, 615 Texas Ave. 713-227-2787. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.

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