NYCB Founder Lincoln Kirstein on Coppélia

New York City Ballet has revived few past classics. However, as with the second act of Swan Lake, Balanchine remounted Ivanov’s choreography as recalled from the Maryinsky productions of his youth. This was also true, in great part, for the Petipa-Ivanov Nutcracker, Petipa’s Harlequinade (in Russia, Les Millions d’Harlequin), and Cortége Hongrois (the finale of Petipa’s Raymonda). In many places dance patterns stayed close to original versions, or at least those with which Balanchine was first familiar. In portions, there was expansion of the score, additions, or personal commentary. Authenticity was never in exact sequences of steps but rather in spirit or style. This is also true of Coppélia, although Madame Danilova, a notable Coppélia in her long career, loyally retrieved the entire second act with her almost photographic memory.
While the entire score of Leo Delibes has been retained as first performed, with additions from La Source and Sylvia giving more importance to male variations in the first and third acts, (which were stinted in Paris), stylistically this new production is based on Petipa’s Petersburg production of 1884, some 15 years after the premiere. In France the role of Frantz was taken by a ballerina en travesti, since male dancers by then had lapsed into mere porteurs, supporting the girls. Delibes had been with Massenet in Hungary, transcribing folk dances.  Through the powerful influence of Alfred Bekeffi, a Hungarian dancing with the Imperial Ballet, in Russia the Carpathian dances held an ethnic veracity past the balleticised charm of the original Grand Opéra.
Later stagings of Coppélia forsook its source in Hoffmann’s tale of the lass over whom rival inventors battled until they dashed out her enamel eyes. It was forgotten that Dr. Coppélius, who deludes himself by imagining he has created a breathing organism, is a grotesque or quasi-tragic figure, rather than a clown. He could stand for the alienated artist-genius victimized by a provincial society of bumpkins or philistines. For the last act Balanchine has entirely restudied the divertissement. “War” is represented by an entry of Valkyries, just as Delibes orchestrated a lighthearted riposte to Wagner, such as Offenbach might have launched against the weight of Die Walküre. It was Napoleon III who declared war against Prussia a few months after this ballet’s debut. Offenbach had made preposterous fun of the French general staff; Bismarck, in Paris, noted that a nation mocking its army was ripe for defeat. Coppélia was the final ballet of the monarchy. The superior mechanics of German militarism overwhelmed a decadent empire. And French authority in ballet passed, for the next century, to Russia.