Dancing on the village green

Friends of Chico Community Ballet present a classic German tale of romance

Preview: Coppélia, a ballet.
Chico Community Ballet, Chico Performances, Laxson Auditorium, January 25-27

The ballet Coppélia, due to be presented by the Friends of Chico Community Ballet and Chico Performances at the University’s Laxson Auditorium Jan. 25-27, has a long history.

It goes back to a tale written around 1815 by the German Romantic author, E. T. A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann, a kind of precursor to Edgar Allen Poe, wrote a number of weird and psychologically unsettling stories. One of these stories, called “The Sandman,” was a particularly dark story involving a young man, Nathaneal, who becomes obsessed with a beautiful automaton created by a diabolically vengeful lawyer-turned-lens-maker known, among other things, as Dr. Coppelius. Indeed, Nathanael’s obsession ruins his life. He scorns the woman who loves him and ends up jumping from a tower in a fit of madness.

Hoffmann may have written the story merely as a ghost story, or he may have been critiquing romantic idealism carried too far (the so-called “idée fixe” of his time), or he may have been suggesting that what many men want in a woman is no more than a pretty plaything who talks in simple-minded monosyllables.

The story was very popular. Freud wrote an extended study of its psychological implications; Jacques Offenbach included it as the first episode in his great opera, the Tales of Hoffmann (exquisitely danced by Moira Shearer in the 1951 film version of the same); and, in 1870, French organist and composer Léo Delibes turned it into one of the great ballets of all times, Coppélia.

Delibes and his librettists changed and simplified the story considerably. In their version, Nathaneal becomes Franz, Coppelius becomes a doll-maker, and his mechanical daughter ("Olympia” in the original) becomes Coppélia. Finally, Nathaneal’s true love ("Klara” in the original) becomes the bright and resourceful Swanilda, a considerably more spirited young woman than the dullish Klara and one whose clever intelligence saves the day.

Dolls, villagers, automatons, humans pretending to be automatons, village dances, wedding dances, love duets, even (in one version) a troupe of visiting Valkyries—is there any doubt that such stuff is the making of a terrific ballet?

The dark side of the story can still be found (as in a recent 1999 London Coliseum performance), but the coming production has chosen to be bright and happy, or “whimsical,” as its press release says. The two principal parts, Swanilda and Franz, will be danced by visiting artists Patricia Sundbeck and Thomas Bell. Sundbeck, a dancer with the Cincinnati Ballet and, formerly, the Sacramento Ballet, has danced a number of leading roles.

Watching her when she and Bell came in for a rehearsal session a week or so ago, an older cast member I spoke with said of her: “Thrilling to watch! A very, very talented young woman.”

Bell, who has danced with the Maryland and Eugene as well as the Sacramento ballet companies, also has a fine local reputation, having been the featured guest dancer in former Chico productions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

These principals will be joined by at least 27 local actors/dancers drawn from the community and local schools. Among the community participants are three familiar personalities from the local drama world—Gary Kupp, Marilyn Warrens and publicist/director Patrick Kopp, who plays the sinister mechanical-doll maker, Coppélius. The company is also very proud of three of its members, Ashley Everett, Maggie Jones and Vanessa Ralston, all of whom have had additional summertime training afar, working with (in order) the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the San Francisco Ballet Academy and the Anaheim Ballet.

Directed by Darren Finney and Debbie Jorritsma, the Chico Community Ballet joins with Susan Pate’s University-based Chico Dance Theatre in keeping a vital form of art alive in this town. For a good show as well as a chance to aid in that effort, Coppélia should be well worth the attending.