Happy returns

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  April 20, 2010

Coppélius is a mime role, and I’ve seen dithery ones, crotchety ones, myopic ones, but rarely a performance so touching. Dossev’s crazed but sympathetic inventor shifts the ballet off its farcical center and makes room for something human. I think Balanchine had more than a historic interest in this character —in real life he was a kind of dollmaker, whose pupils sometimes got the better of him. Shaun O’Brien, who created Coppélius for New York City Ballet, refined the role to an almost tragic portrait.

But Coppélia is above all a dance ballet — at least the first and third acts of it. As repurposed by Balanchine, the plot is clear, but it stays out of the way of the divertissements. There are only token villagers watching the spectacle, and they don’t mill around realistically; they pose quietly around the edges so as not to distract the eye. The choreography provides refreshing modulations in style and scale, from the mazurka and csárdás ensembles in elegant ethnic costumes to Swanilda and her friends, who deploy a palette of demanding but complementary steps, in solos, small groupings, and choruses.

The conventional wedding scene of the last act culminates in a pas de deux for the lead couple, the 19th century’s balletic expression of purest love. Kuranaga gave a fine account of the kind of allegro jumps, directional changes, and precision pointe work we seldom see in contemporary ballets. Madrigal started energetically but seemed to run out of willpower before the end of his big variation. But besides this climactic showpiece, Balanchine — following Petipa and the original scenario — unfolds a pageant of sublimated village life: dawn, prayer, work, amusement, discord and war, all represented in differently textured dance numbers and framed by a corps of 24 little girls in pink tutus.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned to the Wang Theatre for its 42nd visit here with its own tributes to history. The Ailey used to do a bigger range of modern-dance choreography, but the repertory now — at least, the assortment the company brings to Boston — mostly celebrates African-American life and faith, with Ailey’s pivotal Revelations (1960) capping off every program.

Opening night a week ago Thursday brought two 2009 works, Uptown, by long-time featured dancer Matthew Rushing, and Dancing Spirit, by Ronald K. Brown. Rushing’s piece evoked the Harlem Renaissance in a series of dance scenes and literary quotations introduced by a tuxedo-clad MC, Amos J. Machanic Jr. I thought the jitterbuggers and lindy-hoppers and tab choruses from the Cotton Club all looked terrific. The Aileys excel in high-energy, precision jazz dancing. Rushing’s concept was clichéd from beginning to end, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining.

Dancing Spirit was more interesting, partly because it didn’t trade in the stock Ailey character types and attitudes. Set to unusual selections drawing on jazz, African and classical music, and minimalism, by Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, Radiohead, and War, the dance begins with a slow procession led by Rushing. Gesturing and turning in place, then taking a step or two forward, then back, he seems to have embarked on a long journey. One by one, the other eight dancers follow him, and the dance spins off into small clusters and solos. Remnants of the processional keep appearing, as moves we first saw in that long diagonal trudge are incorporated into new dance phrases. The early, rather constricted moves begin to expand and spiral out into space.

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