Coppélia, the 19th-century ballet about an eccentric inventor and the hullabaloo caused by his eerie life-sized dolls, has been called a foil to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein because it shows a sunnier side of mad science. Unlike in Frankenstein, however, nothing happens that defies science: The mannequin who springs to life is only a woman in disguise, and the other dolls seem to be no more than programmed machines. It’s up to the ballet’s interpreters to create magic and whimsy. At American Ballet Theatre’s performance of Coppélia on Monday, that task was performed beyond measure by Natalia Osipova, a guest star from the Bolshoi Ballet, and her apt partner, Daniil Simkin.
Coppélia’s follows Swanilda (Osipova) and Franz (Simkin), two young lovers about to be wed in a small European town. It’s an upbeat place, full of colorful buildings and cheerful locals, and Osipova’s first entrance makes it even brighter. Her grin is goofy but makes her attractively humble. “I’m not a princess or a sylph,” she seems to say,” but one of you.” That is, except when she dances. Like the rest of the audience, I gasped at her rare, dizzying combination of speed, technique, and effortlessness. Her jétes are so wide, it seems impossible for her feet to return to the floor in time, but they do. She hangs in the air and returns to the ground only because the music asks her to. From her effortless grands battements to her rapid-fire pirouettes, Osipova tests the limits of every step, pushing each higher, farther, or faster than expected. But she’s also a true artist: Her youthful expression and crystal-clear mime combine with her dancing to create a rich, colorful Swanilda.
Osipova impressive range of movement makes it even more amusing that Franz forgets her temporarily and falls for a lifeless doll, which he first spots on the balcony of Dr. Coppélius’s laboratory. One step ahead of Franz, Swanilda tiptoes into the workshop. The room is packed with curiosities: Bicycles and a crescent moon hang from the ceiling, and an array of other life-size dolls sit throughout the room. (A brief scene in which these creations awaken and move to the music is nothing short of magical.) The doctor enters, followed by Franz, who confesses his love for the doll, while Swanilda hides behind the curtain, where Coppélia is kept. When she reveals herself in Coppélia’s clothing, the doctor assumes he’s the second coming of Pygmalion and has brought his doll to life. With stiff hips and jerky movements, Osipova dances like a demon through the laboratory, leaving it in shambles before fleeing with Franz. (Our hearts go out to Dr. Coppélius, who’s left alone with the doll, now naked and missing patches of hair.)
In the third act, Dr. Coppélius — somewhat inexplicably — forgives Swanilda for her mischief and the villagers celebrate. Like the first act’s mazurka, the dances for the corps need more variety, but other numbers hold pleasant surprises: A dozen girls from Ballet Theater’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School perform “The Dance of the Hours” with admirable precision, and Hee Seo brings breathtaking delicacy to the “Prayer Variation.” When the couple, dressed in white, reunites for the grand pas de deux, the strong-willed Swanilda finally surrenders herself to Franz and, in an appropriate twist, briefly becomes his doll, allowing him to mold and carry her. Osipova, for the first time, seems somewhat tired here — her leg quivers noticeably as she stands on point — but her powers of expression remain. Simkin shines in his solo variation, rattling off jetés and backward leaps.
Coppélia could easily unravel into silliness, yet Osipova and Simkin relate to their characters — and each other — beautifully. Here, Osipova is mischief personified, and Simkin miraculously convinces us that Franz is naïve and means well. The ballet’s title refers ironically to its most static “character,” but this pair has shown us that this ballet, above all, is about living.