Toy story

If a funny classical ballet sounds like a contradiction in terms, remember that opposites will attract.

It’s a point the Shanghai Ballet gracefully demonstrates in its latest production, the playful caper Coppelia. So how did a Chinese dance company end up performing a resurrected French production? That, too, is a story of opposites attracting — albeit with a transcontinental twist.

In Coppelia, the two protagonists, sweethearts Swanilda and Franz, get ensnared in the drama surrounding an upcoming festival. While Swanilda is hoping to be awarded her dowry along with the village’s other brides-to-be, Franz is distracted by the beautiful — though distinctly non-communicative — daughter of the local toy maker.

Swanilda, egged on by her friends, breaks into the toy maker’s shop to have a look around. In the midst of an army of life-sized toys, she discovers that Coppelia, the “daughter” in question, is really only a mechanical doll. Of course, that’s when the toy maker returns and Swanilda’s friends flee the scene.

Our heroine disguises herself as the doll to avoid getting busted for breaking and entering; while she’s hiding, Franz climbs in the window hoping for a tryst with the deceptively lifelike Coppelia, and total mayhem ensues. It’s a farce of misadventure and mistaken identity that manages to resolve itself happily.

“We like this kind of ballet,” Shanghai Ballet Executive Director Ha Muti says via an interpreter, “and the audience enjoys it.”

But it’s a lot of hard work for its stars.

“Before the dancers begin to learn the ballet,” Muti explains, “they hear the story from the choreographer. They have to learn how they’ll act. Because this is a comedy, there’s a lot of acting involved.” Acting, of course, means conveying the hilarity of Swanilda and Franz’s antics through the pirouettes and arabesques of classical dance.

The ballet is based on an adaptation of German Romanticist E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman, written nearly 200 years ago. Choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon with a musical score by Leo Delibes, Coppelia was first performed at the Paris Opera a century ago, at the pinnacle of the Franco-Prussian war. It turned out to be the final new ballet performed before the siege of Paris, and was lost in the ensuing destruction.

In 1973, French choreographer Pierre Lacotte found and reconstructed Coppelia. Much of Lacotte’s work in the dance world has involved recreating 19th-century ballets, which he has championed for their “purity of style.”

“We must revive the great repertory,” he has told the press. (Lacotte has resuscitated the original choreography of such indispensable balletic works as Giselle and The Nutcracker.)

China was a bit of a late bloomer in ballet terms, not embracing that particular form of dance until the 20th century. Initially, Russian ballet was the major influence there, and Russian dance instructors were positioned in the schools. During the 1950s, ballet was introduced to Chinese audiences, and Swan Lake quickly became the favorite show — in fact, it still is.

In the 1960s, China began to create its own productions. The Shanghai Ballet was formed in 1979, adhering to the traditions of classical ballet while striving to create new works rooted in Chinese folk traditions; the troupe gained notoriety with its performance of White Haired Girl.

When the late 20th century saw an economic boom in Shanghai, the Chinese government began to provide additional funds to further develop ballet schools. As opportunity grew, the Shanghai Ballet imported world-famous choreographers and dance artists to lecture and instruct. Among other ballet traditions, they added French programs to their repertoire.

In February of this year, Lacotte made the trip to Shanghai, working with the company for six weeks as they learned his version of Coppelia. In April, the 60-member troupe premiered their East-meets-West success story in their hometown.

The performance is strikingly European in dance style and costuming, with a set designed to recreate the village square of a small late-1800s town. Principal dancers include Fan Xiaofeng and Sun Shenyi, who hold gold medals from the 19th Varna International Ballet Competition in 2000. Chen Chenzhen also stars, along with Ji Pingping, who won first prize at the 9th Paris International Dance Competition.

The company continues to present a wide classical repertoire, including Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet and, of course, Swan Lake. While The Shanghai Ballet faithfully performs 80 shows each year in its home city and elsewhere in China, the troupe also travels widely, visiting Japan, Australia, France, Canada and the U.S.

Even if the Shanghai Ballet was a bit late making it to the international dance stage, the company appears to be stepping into a tradition of its own.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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