The Milwaukee Ballet opened its 50th season with "Coppelia" — a symbolic toast to the past.

Coppelia is not the most natural choice for the Milwaukee Ballet. That’s a complement, actually — under artistic director Michael Pink’s leadership, this company thrives on complex narratives, rich characters and gorgeous, state-of-the-art designs. Coppelia, by contrast, is a prime example of the Classical period, marked by skimpy fairy tale plots serving as an excuse to showcase fantastic music and technical flamboyancy.

Exhibitionism is not the modus operandi of the Milwaukee Ballet, but they can do it when they want to, and it is significant that this company opens its 50th anniversary season with Coppelia, performed through Sunday at the Marcus Performing Arts Center.

For Milwaukeeans, 1970 was a pretty big year. The Bucks, only in their third season, went 66-16. The city hosted its first Major League baseball game in five years. More than a million people flooded Summerfest’s new permanent home at the defunct Maitland Airport. And, Dec. 3-4 at Uihlein Hall, the Milwaukee Ballet Company premiered its first full-length ballet, Coppelia.

Marize Fumero. Photo by Mark Frohna, Milwaukee Ballet

The brand-new company, which became an official non-profit organization in early 1970, recruited American Ballet Theatre principals to perform the lead roles in the then-hundred-year-old comedy based on two E.T.A Hoffmann stories. Cynthia Gregory danced Swanhilda, a mischievous bachelorette who swoons Franz (Ted Kivitt, who would later serve as artistic director in the ’80s) by pretending to be the object of his infatuation: a toymaker’s doll.

It’s a ridiculous plot. Swanhilda and Franz break into Dr. Coppelius’ shop, where he keeps his life-sized toy dolls. The eccentric toymaker returns to discover Franz, Swanhilda having found a hiding spot with the object of her jealousy, a ballerina doll named Coppelia. Coppelius offers Franz a glass of wine laced with sleeping potion, and Swanhilda, dressed as the doll, nearly swindles the old man. He uncovers her deception, just as Swanhilda frantically rouses Franz. The two escape in the nick of time, and get married.

Alana Griffith. Photo by Nathaniel Davauer, Milwaukee Ballet

Alana Griffith. Photo by Nathaniel Davauer, Milwaukee Ballet

Choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon created Coppelia for ballerina Giuseppina Bozzacchi, “a clever, bright-eyed, neat-limbed damsel of sixteen,” as she was described by the New York Times in 1870. Marize Fumero in Milwaukee Ballet’s production is clever, too, in her portrayal of Swanhilda, an ostensibly canonical role for any ballerina. Fumero alternates the role with Annia Hidalgo and Lahna Vanderbush. And while Coppelia is certainly a show piece for its lead ballerina, there’s plenty for Davit Hovhannisyan to do as Franz (danced in the other casts by Randy Crespo and Parker Brasser-Vos). This most certainly includes the ballet’s third act grand pas de deux, but Hovhannisyan is most adept embracing the laugh-inducing bumbling character of Franz, particularly in his hilarious interactions with Coppelius, played by Timothy O’Donnell (Patrick Howell is his alternate). Hovhannisyan seems less comfortable in Coppelia’s princely moments. Fumero, too, endearingly flippant in the first and second acts, lets her character slide in the third act’s technical solos. 

This might be a failing of the ballet itself, though perhaps enduring 150 years puts Coppelia past the statute of limitations for criticism. Still, we have to see this ballet for what it is: a relic, and a barometer for any company who attempts it.

Milwaukee Ballet Company. Photo by Mark Frohna, Milwaukee Ballet

Timothy O’Donnell. Photo by Nathaniel Davuaer, Milwaukee Ballet

It is not only a test for the soloists, which in addition to Swanhilda and Franz include the iconic Dawn and Prayer variations, as well as Swanhilda’s gaggle of six friends. Dawn is performed by the effervescent Lahna Vanderbush, while Itzel Hernandez commands the pin-point, almost unfair amount of precision required in her Prayer adagio.

Coppelia also poses a significant challenge for the ensemble. The first act is anchored by the corps de ballet’s mazurka, a Polish folk dance set to one of most recognizable passages of Leo Delibes’ terrific score. Here the company shines, as does the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, lined up in perfect rows for all the heel clicking bravura you could want in an evening, but they appear to run out of gas in the third act wedding dances.

This is inconsequential to the bigger picture: Coppelia is a symbolic and touching gesture, a toast to the company’s past as they embark on their 50th season, and it feels easy to say that this is a company Milwaukee can be proud of.

Barry Molina. Photo by Nathaniel Davauer, Milwaukee Ballet

Marize Fumero and Timothy O’Donnell. Photo by Nathaniel Davauer, Milwaukee Ballet

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