Classical ballet is not necessarily a serious business. Yes, dancers endure years of physical training, mental preparation and, of course, pain. But there is a whimsical, fun side to dance — and, in particular, to Lexington Ballet's latest production, Coppélia.
A light-hearted tale about a couple whose impending marriage is threatened when the groom falls in love with a life-size mechanical doll, the ballet is based on two stories by E.T.A. Hoffman, who wrote The Nutcracker.
"It is the perfect introduction to ballet for children and adults," says Lexington Ballet artistic director Luis Dominguez, who describes Coppélia as "the biggest thing we have ever done."
Involving a double cast of more than 90 dancers ranging from 6-year-old ballet students to adult professionals, Coppélia is the first three-act ballet that Lexington Ballet has tackled, although its two-hour running time is no longer than a typical two-act ballet.
It's also more than 140 years old, having premiered in Paris in 1870 before enjoying successful revivals by the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Royal Ballet in England.
Dominguez stays true to legendary Royal Ballet choreographer Ninette de Valois' 1954 version of the ballet, which is based on even older choreography.
"We really didn't change much," Dominguez says. Audiences will enjoy the show's comedic accessibility as much as its rich history, he says.
"It has a happy ending and is just very light and fun," he says. "The story is easy to follow because there is so much pantomime."
Pantomime is a huge part of Cal Lawton's role as Dr. Coppelius, a sinister magician who has created lifelike mechanical dolls. He is in love with a doll named Coppélia, as is Franz, the love interest of potential bride Swanhilde.
Lawton, 47, who has been involved with Lexington Ballet for 27 years, says playing Dr. Coppelius is a particularly welcome challenge because much of the story's narrative arc relies on the audience successfully interpreting his exaggerated movements.
"That second balcony (of the Lexington Opera House) feels like it is a mile away, so what I have to do is ensure that my pantomime is so large that it reads all the way up to that back row on the second balcony."
Principal dancers Megan Coleman Stuart and Lauren Tenney are double cast as Swanhilde. Both cite the show's thematic levity and the opportunity to fully develop a character with pantomime and gesture as highlights of performing in Coppélia.
Stuart says pantomime is becoming a lost art, but he really enjoys it. "No one wants to see the classics as much as contemporary, and that's sad. I love being able to go back and see why they do it and what it means."
"Pantomime can be hard," Tenney says. Her favorite part of the show has been getting to know her character, Swanhilde, for the first time.
"I have never danced this role before, so I loved learning about my character and seeing things from her point of view," she says.
The role of Swanhilde is beautiful but grueling. Act II features almost 30 minutes of continuous dancing for Tenney and Stuart, who, in addition to being denied the quick moments backstage between numbers that ballet dancers are used to, must emulate a wood doll, unnaturally breathing through their noses.
"It's a lot of dancing," says Stuart, who has performed the role before. "It's a fun ballet that most people will really enjoy."
IF YOU GO
What: Lexington Ballet's production of the 1870 comic ballet based on stories by E.T.A. Hoffman
When: 2 and 7 p.m. April 13; 2 p.m. April 14. (The previously scheduled April 12 performance has been canceled.)
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $29.75, $19.75 students. Available at (859) 233-3535 or through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Learn more: Lexingtonballet.org
Cookies With 'Coppélia': Reception featuring cast and refreshments after matinees on April 13 and 14. Shakespeare and Co., 367 W. Short St. $5.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.