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PNB family-friendly Coppelia

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David the Docent: PNB’s ‘Coppelia’

This classic dance tale may make kids want to dance

It is a source of some embarrassment that I have spent years mocking story ballets. 

First, there were the milkmaids waving goodbye to the departing soldiers only to be ready to welcome them back in the third act. 

Then there was the Bavarian village scenery that had seen better days and the old hag character actor who carried a broom or a poison cup of something. I couldn’t take it seriously or even enjoy the fun it was supposed to be. 

A sea change in attitude

Then came Coppelia, PNB’s current production, on stage through June 9. 

It turned me around and made me wish I had a grandkid with me to watch them decide to become a dancer then and there.  

The story isn’t too complex for a youngster over age 5 to follow, but I would advise introducing the storyline prior to arriving.  That way your child companion will be able to follow and enjoy the funny parts of this tale more. PNB’s website is full of ideas about making this ballet a good experience for children.  

Story in a nutshell

Briefly, we have a very strange guy, Dr. Coppelius, who makes life-size dolls in his workshop. One is a beautiful doll he calls Coppelia who sits on the balcony and looks a bit too real. If this sounds kinky, it isn’t. This is a family ballet. At the time this story was written, the idea of creating machines that were like humans was a common theme. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when machines were magic.

Our other characters are Swanilda, the prettiest girl in the village, and her boyfriend Franz who lives down the road. Then of course there are the host of Swanilda’s friends and the dolls in Dr. Coppelius’s workshop.

The big surprise comes in the waltz in Act III, which is where we get to see the spectacular dancing by the student ballerinas of the PNB school.  

PNB family-friendly coppelia

Photo courtesy

Discover the  love of dance

Every kid in the auditorium will discover the fun of dancing from the kids on the stage. I suspect there was a little girl in a pink tutu waiting backstage for her turn, watching the prima ballerina and thinking that one day she would do that. I am sure there was a mom and dad weeping in the audience as they watched their little girl having the time of her life. 

Updated for inclusion

PNB has carefully considered how to deal with difficult scenes, such as when Franz and his friends beat up Dr. Coppelius. The dolls in the second act are more varied than in past versions of the ballet to avoid stereotyping. Earlier choreography has been changed in cooperation with the George Balanchine Trust. 

Exploring important themes

At the same time, this production explores themes such as jealousy, stealing (sneaking into private homes without permission), and taking wine from a stranger.

But this is all a fairytale and pretend. Perhaps it would be wise to reinforce the idea that accepting food, candy, or drink from strangers is probably unwise. Furthermore, these kids were very lucky that they were able to escape from Coppelius without injury or being hauled off to time out.  

Vibrant staging

The production is colorful. Roberta Guidi di Bagno has created a village that drips wisteria and Italian sunshine. I loved the studio of Dr. Coppelius. The topsy-turvy shelves filled with books and unfinished dolls create an atmosphere of dust and creativity.   The tuneful music by Leo Delibes is what can only be called a real toe-tapper. The costumes are spectacular and clearly identify the roles. Choreography comes from Balanchine and Danilova via memories of Imperial Russia with a nod to modern times. 

Yes, I’ll always love an abstract pure dance experience, and PNB can be applauded for the variety of works it does on a bare stage. Nevertheless, a well-told tale with a happy ending and dancers with tiaras are food for the souls of all ages. Bravo.

See the show

“Coppelia” will be performed on stage at Seattle’s McCaw Hall on June 6, 7, and 8 at  7:30 p.m. and at 1 p.m. on June 9. Tickets start at $50. Purchase tickets online.

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About the Author

David Turner

David Turner is an art lover, an art maker, a writer and volunteer docent at Seattle Art Museum where he leads tours and inspired kids to think and feel when they look. His favorite artwork in the museum changes with every tour.