Dance department chair Larry Attaway’s command immediately changes the atmosphere in the dance studio. Dancers in bright costumes move to the sides of the room, standing up from benches or coming in from the hallway where they were stretching. The talk and laughter gradually grows into individual preparation: practicing arm and hand movements, jumping up and down, stretching. The brief pause in the dress rehearsal for this weekend’s preparations for “Coppélia” is at an end. It is time to start Act III.
The Butler Ballet’s “Coppélia” opens at 8 p.m. on Friday in Clowes Memorial Hall.
Stephan Laurent, professor of dance, choreographed a large part of this year’s ballet. He described E.T.A. Hoffman and Léo Delibes’ ballet, written in 1870, as “the great comic ballet.” Therein, he said, lies both the ballet’s greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Laurent said that the great strength of the ballet is its accessibility. For those that have never seen ballet before, “Coppélia” is a great way to start. The story is extremely easy to follow. It incorporates folk dance movements such as clapping and stomping which may be easier to understand than the complex movement language of ballet.
The story of “Coppélia” will be familiar to most. It follows a kind of “mad scientist,” Doctor Coppélius, who tries to bring one of his dolls to life in order to assuage his loneliness.
His attempts unwittingly encourage the marriage of two townspeople, and they make Doctor Coppélius forget his loneliness by inviting him to the wedding festivities (and paying him a fair amount of gold).
A take on Ovid’s story of Pygmalion, this theme can be found in many stories ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” to Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay “Being John Malkovich.”
Laurent said that, despite its easily understood plot, the comedy of the ballet is also its greatest challenge for the student dancers.
“In comedy, timing is everything,” he said.
The role of Doctor Coppélius is so difficult in fact, that the Butler Ballet often uses a faculty member to dance the role. In this week’s production, Coppélius will be danced by Michael Johnson, visiting assistant professor of dance.
Senior dance performance major Garrett Glassman, who dances Franz in the production, said that the comedic mime was extremely difficult to master. However, it helped that he was able to understand the directions and critiques of Laurent and the other faculty.
“After four years, you really get to know [the choreographers’ methods],” he said. “You can, right away, give them what they want.”
For senior dance performance and English literature major Olivia Yoch, the most difficult part was not comedic timing but learning the vast amount of choreography involved in dancing her character, Swanhilda.
“To a certain extent, I think [Laurent’s] challenge as a choreographer is slightly different than mine as a dancer, because I have the advantage of his already having worked on it and set the movement to music,” she said. “I almost haven’t been thinking about how to make things funny as much as how to make them logical.”
In making her movements logical, Yoch also interprets her character as much as the choreography will allow. She said that while Swanhilda is often played as cold-hearted, which elements of the choreography will bring out, she should be a sympathetic character overall. This assessment is based on both historical facts, like the comedic nature of the ballet, and on personal reflection.
Laurent said he often allows the dancers to develop the finer points of their characters.
“At first,” he said, “[the student’s interpretations] are a little more mechanical, and then, they start finding subtleties, and that’s where the sense of artistry comes.”
Yoch said the ballet should be more lighthearted than what the company usually offers, “so maybe if classical ballet is not your thing, then this is what you should see.”
Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Richard Auldon Clark will conduct the Butler Ballet Orchestra for the production. Tickets are $10-$15 for students.