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Ballet Austin's 'Coppélia' finds the funny in 19th-century dance

Clare Croft
Rodolfo Gonzalez american-statesman Jaime Lynn Witts, one of two women dancing the lead role of Swanilda, rehearses for Ballet Austin's production of 'Coppélia.' It opens Friday night.

Nineteenth-century ballet rarely has a place for slapstick humor or sassy women. 'Coppélia' is the exception. The ballet's feisty, funny heroine, Swanilda, bears little resemblance to the tragic women in Russian and French classics like 'Swan Lake' and 'Giselle.' Don't come expecting dying swans or heartbroken lovers from Ballet Austin's version of 'Coppélia,' which opens Friday night at Dell Hall at Long Center for the Performing Arts.

Company artistic director Stephen Mills has staged Ballet Austin's 'Coppélia' in the style of the Ballet Russe version he learned as a dancer from Frederic Franklin. 'She is very much like Clara in the Nutcracker; she's a superwoman,' Mills says of Swanilda. 'In the beginning, she pretends to be a diminutive character, but she's very much a woman with her own ideas.'

Both 'Coppélia' and 'The Nutcracker' spring from eerie, almost gruesome stories by German writer E.T.A Hoffman. As French-born Russian classicist Maurius Petipa did with 'The Nutcracker,' 'Coppélia' choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon transformed Hoffman's macabre tale into a relatively lighthearted affair.

In 'Coppélia,' Swanilda grows jealous of her fiancé Franz's flirtation with the doll Coppélia, although in the ballet's first act both of the young lovers think Coppélia is a real woman. Separately, Swanilda and Franz steal into the dollmaker Dr. Coppelius' shop, where Swanilda uncovers the doll's identity. Dr. Coppelius finds Franz in his toy shop and drugs him, hoping to steal Franz's humanity for his prize creation . Swanilda must save her doped, dopey lover.

In the ballet's third act, Swanilda finally agrees to marry Franz. (Swanilda's first-act refusal to marry must have been a shock to 19th-century audiences.) Swanilda also agrees to repay Dr. Coppelius for the damage done to his toy shop. Jaime Lynn Witts, who shares the role of Swanilda with Ashley Lynn Gilfix, says the exchange with Coppelius demonstrates Swanilda's independence.

'Swanilda's not looking for the man to rescue her,' Witts says. 'She gets herself into trouble, and she gets herself out of trouble.'

The trouble she gets into might make Dr. Coppelius sad, but Swanilda's antics play the audience for big laughs, a task made easier by Mills' facility with ballet comedy. His takes on Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew' and 'Midsummer Night's Dream' always produce audible laughter from the audience. Mills says highlighting the humor in 'Coppélia' requires honing familiar jokes - slapstick Mills has loved since he watched Sid Caesar's television variety shows as a child.

'"Coppélia" uses a broad, almost vaudevillian old joke style,' Mills says. 'There's a moment in Act I where Swanilda steps up and slaps Dr. Coppelius. You can see it coming; it's one of the oldest jokes in the book. In rehearsal we have to work on making sure Dr. Coppelius doesn't give the joke away before it happens. Physical performers just have to walk right into the joke.'

As Mills notes, much of 'Coppélia's' humor comes through mime-heavy scenes . Training in mime and character dancing (another important component of 'Coppélia') was once compulsory in ballet schools, but now the two forms are rarely taught.

'So much of the story gets pushed in this ballet through mime done directly to the audience,' Witts says. 'It's such a complicated story. The mime has to be clear enough to tell the story, but exaggerated, first of all, because it's in the theater, but also because the comedy has to come across.'

The layers of mime, character and classical dancing make Swanilda a challenging role, and it will be Witts' first time in an evening-length ballet's principal role. Mills says he's not worried.

'Jaime has an innate sense of when to be with the person she's acting with and when to be with the audience,' he says. 'Someone might look at Swanilda and think, "This isn't Odette (from "Swan Lake") or Ophelia (from Mills' "Hamlet"), but Jamie has developed Swanilda as a real character.'

She won't dance herself to death or turn into a bird - the fate of so many of ballet's women. Instead, she'll make the audience laugh.

Ballet Austin's 'Coppélia'

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday,

3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive.

Cost: $27 to $77