New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
January 7 and 13, 2009
Copyright 2009 By Michael Popkin
Megan Fairchild danced the role of Swanilda in Coppelia twice during the first ten days of City Ballet's winter season and set a new standard for perfection in a role that has more or less eluded an entire generation of dancers at the company. Since Patricia McBride, who orginated the role, retired in 1989, it's been danced here by Margaret Tracey, Yvonne Borree, Jenifer Ringer and Alexandra Ansanelli and perhaps one or two others; none, however, approached the level we saw from Fairchild these two weeks as she gave not only a definitive reading of the part, but signaled her achievement of maturity as an artist.
It is to begin with a perfect role for Fairchild; we knew at the outset that she's the type for it physically and temperamentally. That said, nothing prepared me for how perfectly she would present herself in it and how surely she would both dance and interpret her character. With her make up subdued to harmonize her expression (particularly the lipstick, which she has often overdone) and a traditional coiffure, gathered low at the back, that also flattered the fine proportions of her neck and face, she's never looked better on stage, or for that matter had a costume that better suited her figure: a body slightly longer below the waist than above it and with relatively long arms and eloquent hands that enable her to dance taller and with more extended lines than her petite size would lead you to expect.
From her first entrance to her last, you knew at every moment who the principal dancer was and also exactly where she was on the stage; in a ballet where she's the leader of a pack of friends, she led implicitly by her very presence and authority. She danced with outstanding finish and musicality; and above all a clear and charming grasp of her character, conveying this in effortless and natural mime that incorporated gestures, steps and facial expressions. Swanilda is not a realistic character in the method acting sense of the word and Fairchild seemed to know this; it's a role that derives from "Harlequin and Columbine drama" and what you want isn't a real character so much as a beautifully stylized traditional one and in this she triumphed. Five or six facial expressions are needed (wide eyed innocence, petulance, peevishness, naughty maliciousness, sorrow, etc.) as well as a good neutral expression out of which and into which the other expressions appear and vanish; if the expressions are too many or too natural, the mime appears busy; if they're too few, it appears impoverished: Fairchild's mastery of the happy mean on this point was unsurpassed in my memory of dancers in this part. Her Swanilda charmed but, paradox of paradoxes, was also touching at times, examples being the moment at the end of the ear of wheat dance when she rushed offstage, burying her face in her hands in sorrow at her failure to hear wedding bells in the grain; or again, her infectious delight in skipping about Coppelius's workshop with her friends (which seemed as spontaneous as the laughter of someone sitting next to you in the theater); or finally the moment in the second act when Coppelius attempts to transfer Frantz's heartbeat to what he thinks is his doll but is really Swanilda. At this point, when the orchestra begins to reprise a Wagnerian theme in the strings and horns, Swanilda starts to breathe and loosen in her upper body, something Fairchild acted so clearly and naturally that the feeling conveyed was lyrical; we in the audience were moved and elevated despite the burlesque of the doll coming to life and the broad comedy involved in Swanilda's situation. Her dancing the third act grand pas de deux was then serene, elevated and technically commanding, a text book example of how natural and joyous dancing will convey a sense of happiness to the viewer; her adagio characterized by easy and fluent extensions that stretched her lines surprisingly; and her allegro variations by large and easy technical effects: pas de chats and sautes de Basques with beautiful shape and flow; interlaced turns accomplished very fast and fluidly, with perfectly coordinated and closed fifth positions in between revolutions; a diagonal of beautiful quick leaps into brise positions; and all ending in poses shaped to perfection and surely held.
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Joaquin de Luz was a strong partner for her throughout both performances and Robert La Fosse a persuasive and at times even moving Coppelius, particularly in the first performance opposite Fairchild on January 7th, when he had not yet begun to oveact as he did progressively as the run of performances (which also included debuts by Sterling Hyltin and Tiler Peck as Swanilda over the weekend) proceeded. De Luz remains, however, too small a partner for Fairchild; he forces her to dance short to adapt to him when ideally you would like to see her partnered by someone who made her dance taller. But De Luz is perhaps the most accomplished man at City Ballet at the moment and Fairchild will probably continue to dance with him because she is the only principal woman in the company who is remotely his size.
All of the performances I saw this week (the two by Fairchild as well as Hyltin's debut on Saturday afternoon) were well performed from the dramatic point of view, with the plot elements particularly well conveyed. It must nonetheless be said for the record that the company beyond the principal dancers looked ragged at times, as is often the case at the start of the winter season when five weeks of Nutcrackers have taken their mental and physical toll on everyone; and particularly that the children in the third act waltz looked frantic and awkward in instances. The large round of applause they garnered appeared to be more a function of "cute little kids can do this stuff" than of their doing it well. Likewise the national dances in the first act lacked rhythmic punch, though it's never been the practice at City Ballet to emphasize the accents in these dances. I except from this general criticism the third act variations on January 7th, which were nicely performed by Teresa Reichlen (Dawn), Rebecca Krohn (Prayer), and Faye Arthurs (Spinner); and the dancing at every show by the four youngest women in the corps de ballet - Lydia Wellington, Megan Johnson, Callie Bachman, and Kristin Segin - as the Four Jesterettes. The newcomers consistently danced with more energy, focus, committment, pleasure and finish than their sisters in the senior corps.
Copyright 2009 by Michael Popkin
Both Photos, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz in the first act of Coppelia, by Paul Kolnik courtesy of New York City Ballet.