Stage: Wednesday, October 8, 2003
Not Toying Around

With Ben Stevenson at the helm, Texas Ballet Theater kicks it up a few notches in Coppélia.


Enough can’t be said about the transformation Ben Stevenson has made in Texas Ballet Theater (formerly Fort Worth Dallas Ballet) in the short time he’s been there. The season-opening Coppélia made it seem as if a new company had dropped from the sky. Gone were the tentative principal dancers, the valiant but choppy corps, indeed the whole under-rehearsed atmosphere that had become a company trademark. Instead there was a bright, young group confidently dancing in a production that would look good in any opera house you could name.

Coppélia has had other incarnations here, but this latest has to rank at the top. It remains a family favorite, although children may find it more appealing than grown-ups. Arthur Saint-Leon’s 1870 scenario follows the amorous illusions of Franz, a not-too-swift young man who forsakes his sweetheart, Swanilda, for a mechanical doll, Coppélia, created by an addled toy maker. After three acts — and Swanilda’s heroic efforts — he comes to what passes for his senses and marries his lady. The town rejoices with some spectacular dancing. Not the stuff of greatness, but Leo Delibe’s frothy score has charm, and Stevenson holds your interest with classy choreography that abounds with unexpected surprises.

Stevenson choreographed the piece for the Houston Ballet a decade or so ago while artistic director there, and it remains one of his most winning creations. Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes — a middle-European fantasy brilliantly realized in opulent materials — are subtly enhanced by Duane Schuler’s lighting scheme. A town square with a baroque onion-domed church upstage backdrops the first and last acts, and the dollmaker’s inner sanctum is deliciously spooky in the second.

The opening-night Swanilda was Michele Gifford, a long-legged veteran from the New York City Ballet who has blossomed under the Stevenson regime. It was a persuasive performance, combining comic know-how with a relaxed technical command not noticed before. The articulation of her rapid-fire footwork could be crisper, but her balance on pointe is wonderful, and she outlines slow musical phrases with elegant lyricism. Her Franz was Ronnie Underwood, still in his early 20s and already an impressive dancer with a natural presence that seems tailor-made for this kind of role. Their bravura wedding pas de deux, set by Stevenson as a kind of Russian/British showpiece, brought roars of approval.

The pantomime role of Dr. Coppelius, the dollmaker, was taken by Tim O’Keefe, recently retired principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and now Stevenson’s assistant. He found a happy balance between town grouch and obsessed doll fancier that was at once comedic and moving.

Two specialty solos, Dawn and Prayer, in the final celebrations, were especially welcome. Danced by Enrica Guana Tseng and Margo McCann respectively, they showed the attention to detail Stevenson has brought to the company. Each dancer made a complete statement in the few minutes at hand and handled the assignments with assurance and style. The corps de ballet, too, looked smart and eager to please. The dancers threw themselves into the opening Mazurka and Czardas with almost frenzied energy. Stevenson’s choreography is demanding and gives no quarter. The 12 women in the final sequence twice had to manage double turns on pointe. They tossed them off with no apparent problems.

Musical accompaniment was overseen by new music director Jack Buckhannan, another Houston Ballet alumnus now residing in Fort Worth. He started the evening by leading the Fort Worth Symphony in a jet-propelled version of the “Star Spangled Banner” and then settled into some meaningful accompanying. As chief rehearsal pianist, he knows the dancers’ needs and will stretch a phrase almost to the breaking point to accommodate them. The orchestra followed his fluctuations with amazing ease and kept the musical lines intact.

Stevenson has a solid reputation for staging full-evening story ballets. His Cinderella last season, this Coppélia, and his upcoming Nutcracker in December all reflect an affinity for the genre. His secret seems to be the ability to express the wonder of fairy tales through the mind of a child who still believes in the magic of make-believe. His Nutcracker in Houston last year brought tears to the eyes, the joy of the trip taking us back to childhood. Three weekends of the production are scheduled in Bass Performance Hall during the holidays.

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