By Steve Sucato
Things are progressing nicely for Gladisa Guadalupe’s Cleveland Ballet. The fledgling company with the familiar name, was introduced to local audiences last October at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre in a mixed repertory program with Neos Dance Theatre as part of its preview season. The production ignited interest in the city’s newest resident ballet company that Guadalupe and company hope to fuel with the world premiere of Ramón Oller’s Coppélia, the company’s first major standalone production.
The company, led and partially bankrolled by, Guadalupe and local businessman and Board Chairman Michael Krasnyansky, PhD, is a 10-member troupe of young professional dancers. Since last October the company has made a number of small appearances around the city including teaming up with The Cleveland Orchestra in April for its family concert Gotta Dance! Those performances had have helped prep the dancers for perhaps their biggest challenge to date, Oller’s technically demanding reinterpretation of Coppélia.
A native of Esparreguera in the province of Barcelona, Spain, Oller is an award-winning choreographer who has created ballets for Compañía Nacional de Danza, National Ballet of Spain and New York’s Ballet Hispánico, which is reviving his 1998 work “Bury Me Standing” this season.
The comic ballet Coppélia, originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon to music by composer Léo Delibes in 1870, is based on two tales by E. T. A. Hoffmann that tell the story of eccentric inventor Dr. Coppélius who makes life-size dancing dolls including his beloved Coppélia who he desperately desires to bring to life. Seeing the lifelike doll Franz, a village youth, becomes infatuated with it to the detriment of his relationship with his intended Swanilda. Through a series of ludicrous events the unlikely trio become embroiled in a humorous case of mistaken identity, misdirection and mayhem that by ballet’s end once again confirms that true love conquers all.
Oller’s new 80-minute, multi-media version of Coppélia, also set to Delibes’ music, he says was inspired by the 1966 film El fantástico mundo del doctor Coppelius. It starred Walter Slezak as Dr. Coppelius and featured the ballet company and orchestra of the Gran Teatro del Liceo of Barcelona along with Dame Alicia Markova who was an artistic consultant on the film.
Like Paris Opera Ballet’s 1996 version choreographed by Patrice Bart, Oller condenses the ballet from its usual three acts to two. For the most part he says his version will follow the ballet’s original storyline, especially in the first act. Where things differ is that the ballet is set in the middle part of the 20th century instead of the early 19th and plays up more Dr. Coppélius’ longing for a family of his own and the idea of real versus imagined love.
The biggest changes come in the ballet’s second act with the addition of a dream sequence in which the style of ballet’s dancing transitions from classical ballet to more contemporary dance movement.
Starring as the sweet but feisty Swanilda will be Bath-native Lauren Stenroos. She describes Oller as a very gifted choreographer who can identify and utilize each individual dancer’s strengths.
“He saw things in my dancing I didn’t,” says Stenroos. “He wants us to dance with no inhibitions and not think about the movement but feel it from an emotional place.”
Dancing the role of Swanilda’s mischievous love interest Franz, will be Nicholas Montero. The Spaniard is one of a handful of guest dancers from New York City’s Joffrey Ballet Concert Group. The pre-professional troupe ─ not to be confused with Joffrey Ballet of Chicago ─ regularly tours the United States and in 2013 opened the Florence Dance Festival in Italy. Another JBCG dancer to watch is Lüna Sayag. The talented Parisian who understudies Stenroos, will dance the role of one of Swanilda’s friends. Oller will perform the role of Dr. Coppélius with Elena Cvetkovich as Coppélia. The cast also includes some 30-dancers from the School of Cleveland Ballet and its Youth Ballet Company in supporting roles.
In keeping with Guadalupe’s vision for the new Cleveland Ballet as being a lean and mean troupe with a diverse repertory suitable for touring, Oller’s Coppélia will forego bulky wooden sets and expensive painted drops in favor of tour-friendly lighting effects and images created by nationally known lighting designer Trad A. Burns.
In many ways Coppélia represents the new Cleveland Ballet’s first big test. The production is an ambitious one. In watching rehearsals of it, Oller doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to challenging Cleveland Ballet’s young dancers with his choreography. Further intriguing is unlike other familiar story ballets (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty) that have seen countless reinterpretations, a new interpretation of Coppélia is a rarity in this country. It’s something area dance fans will not want to miss.
Cleveland Ballet performs Ramón Oller’s Coppélia, 7 p.m., Friday, May 13 and 1 p.m., Saturday, May 14; Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. $20-$49. (216) 241-6000 or playhousesquare.org. For group sales: (216) 640-8603. More information at clevelandballet.org.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.