The Shanghai Ballet fills the stage with talent, movement, and fun. The ballet "Coppélia" takes place in a Galician village, and it appeared the entire little town had turned out for tonight's celebration. "Coppélia" is a rare ballet with a comic bent, a witty female lead, and, uh, less-than-heroic male characters. Like the Nutcracker, it is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, and you'll notice the parallels in the dreamy, childlike sense of make-believe it portrays.
Formed in 1979, the Shanghai Ballet has become a world-renowned dance company whose members have won many awards at prestigious international ballet competitions. They are currently on a U.S. tour, showcasing the grace and skill of their dancers.
Act I reveals that Franz and Swanilda are an uneasy couple. Franz is revealed to be a typical man, blowing a kiss to a pretty girl in an upstairs window right in front of Swanilda, his supposed fiancée. Still, you feel sorry for him when Swanilda begins teasing him cruelly in front of a growing crowd in the village square for his unfaithfulness. This act contains as much pantomime as dancing. Acting out a story is always a work of rather abstract art, and it was an amusing challenge to interpret the gestures and dance movements: "Ah, the burgermeister is asking Swanilda if she and Franz will marry tomorrow as planned. She's being rather non-committal..." There is some very nice solo and ensemble dancing here, including some terrific one-footed twirling jumps by Swanilda. Remember, in hula you watch the hands; in ballet you watch the feet. And what of Las Vegas-style dancing, you ask? Never mind.
The pretty girl who started all this is none other than Coppélia, daughter of the eccentric old toymaker Coppélius. In a rather Shakespearean way, Swanilda and her girlfriends become as intensely interested in this silent girl in the upper window as Franz is - and nobody knows a thing about her! Act I ends with the kids figuring out how to sneak into Coppélius' house to satisfy their overpowering curiosity.
Act II is really fun. Swanilda and her nervous young girlfriends sneak into the house and are startled by each of the old man's life-sized dolls, one at a time. The dancers' expressions of curiosity, alarm, and discovery are utterly charming. When they open the curtain to Coppélia's room - have you guessed it already? - ah, so thats why she didn't respond to the hellos and waves from outside. Swanilda is delighted (probably at Franz's gullability at falling for a doll), and after old Coppélius returns and chases the other girls out, she hides in Coppélia's room and puts on the doll's dress, taking her place. Soon Franz climbs in through the workshop window seeking Coppélia. Old Coppélius confronts Franz and then offers him a drink spiked secretly with sleeping powder.
The toymaker then attempts a spell to transfer the life force from the sleeping Franz into his beloved Coppélia. Swanilda fools him by pretending to come to life. She dances mechanically and, to our great amusement, frequently "accidentally" bumps and slaps him as she moves. Okay, we men aren't looking too smart in this story. The act ends hilariously after Franz awakes: Coppélius learns he has been tricked, is completely overwhelmed, and faints comically as the curtain closes. Swanilda also has great fun revealing the truth about the doll to poor Franz, who is forgiven in the end. (It's a small village; maybe Swanilda figures he's the best she can do.) Given that the Shanghai Ballet is on tour and can't drag an orchestra along, the music is recorded - and perhaps a bit too soft - but the score is spunky and complements the action perfectly here.
The Shanghai Ballet has many principal dancers who can play different roles as needed in their performances. Tonight Swanilda was played by Fan Xiaofeng, and with her playful facial expressions, she seemed perfect for the role. Franz was portrayed by Ke Da, who normally plays another fiancé soloist as part of a group of couples to be married in the story. He exuded an earnest innocence that contrasted Swanilda's coquettishness wonderfully.
The story largely ends there. Act III consists of some terrific celebratory dances by the corps de ballet and the pairs of fiancé soloists. In this act there were no props on stage - not even a backdrop, which seemed odd. Oh, well - it was the dancing that counted. Different groups performed dances named "Hours of the Day", "Dawn", "Hours of the Night", and "Spinners". When the male fiancé soloists lifted their partners, it appeared to require all their strength, whereas Nureyev and Baryshnikov could have played "catch" across the stage with one of those ballerinas. That's probably just genetics, though. The best dance of all was the graceful, romantic wedding dance by Franz and Swanilda.
The entire act, and indeed the whole ballet, was great fun; individuals and groups were constantly rotating on- and off-stage in seamless coordination. The Shanghai Ballet is a large group of talented young performers, and the panorama they presented was often more than my eyes could take in. I hope I didn't miss anything.
For more information on UNLV's "Hot Ticket Season" performances, visit the Performing Arts Center at http://pac.nevada.edu. Shanghai Ballet: http://www.sh-ballet.com. Nevada Ballet: www.nevadaballet.com
Reviewed November 19, 2002 at UNLV's Artemus Ham Hall by Rob LaGrone, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Entertainment Editor.