Irving — Watching Ballet Ensemble of Texas (BET) as they prepared for their upcoming performance of Coppélia at the Irving Arts Center this past weekend it was easy to see why BET is one of the most sought after pre-professional companies for young, aspiring dancers in the Metroplex. In addition to the company’s expansive dance curriculum, which includes rigorous training in classical, contemporary, modern and jazz techniques, the dancers are also being schooled in technical continuity and precision as well as artistic self-expression and character portrayal. These are the skillsets audiences have to come to expect from the company, and they were the main focus of criticism during last Saturday’s four hour Coppelia rehearsal at the Ballet Academy of Texas studio in Coppell.
“Hit your fifth,” rehearsal director Thom Clower calls out to Masumi Yoshimoto (Swanilda) during one of her many petite allegro jumping sequences in Act I. “More luxurious with the expression,” he says later as Yoshimoto executes a series of side bend stretches on pointe. “Feel the dilemma,” he shouts to Aldrin Vendt (Franz) as he tries to decipher his true feelings between his fiancée Swanilda and the mysterious girl in the window named Coppelia. Clower’s vibrant personality and positive teaching methods were well-received by the dancers as was evident through the razor sharp focus and high energy levels everyone maintained throughout rehearsal.
For those needing a refresher, Coppélia (1870) is a romantic comedy ballet originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon with music by Leo Delibes. Most modern day productions are derived from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa and typically feature only two of the ballet’s three acts. Based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann entitled The Sandman, the ballet follows heroine Swanilda as she tries to win back her fiancée Franz who has fallen in love with a girl named Coppelia who is actually a doll owned by the mysterious Doctor Coppelius. Franz gets caught sneaking into Doctor Coppelius’ workshop and Swanilda comes to his rescue by deceiving the doctor into believing that she is his doll come to life. In the final act Swanilda makes amends with the doctor and a wedding celebrates ensures for Franz and Swanilda.
BET will be performing George Skibine’s version of Coppélia, which includes all three acts. Skibine was a former director of the Paris Opera Ballet and also the founder of Dallas Ballet along with his wife Marjorie Tallchief (sister of Maria Tallchief). Clower and BET Artistic Director Allan Kinzie both danced professionally under Skibine’s direction and guidance. Coppélia isn’t the first work of Skibine’s that Clower has restaged for BET. Two seasons ago he reworked Skibine’s The Firebird on the company which was warmly received by both audiences and critics.
Clower’s strong rapport with the company makes for a very productive and positive environment for the dancers to work in. “He is just so easy to work with,” Yoshimoto says. “He is so fun and engaging and we really feed off his positive energy.” When asked about the notes she was giving during and after the first act Yoshimoto just smiles and says she doesn’t take the criticism personally. “I take the notes as new ways to help me grow as a dancer.”
I first saw Yoshimoto perform three years ago when she nailed the role of the Dew Drop Fairy in BET’s annual Nutcracker production. And while her technique and performance quality have grown over the years, the one thing that has remained the same is her ability to deliver technically consistent performances no matter what the part. In this case Yoshimoto’s unique abilities are well suited to the role of Swanilda. Her infectious stage presence and innate lyricism showed during the many gestural phrases in the first half as well as the less technical and more reactionary moments, such as when Swanilda catches Franz flirting with Coppelia and later when Franz calls off their engagement in front of the entire town.
Another dancer who has shown immense growth over the last couple of years is BET alum Aldrin Vendt. Gone are his boyish looks and leaner musculature and in their place a more toned and confidant leading man. His technique and body control has also improved, which he proved with his cleaner lines and sounder take offs and landings during his double tours and entrechats.
During a break in rehearsal I was surprised when Yoshimoto mentioned this was her first time playing a lead in a full-length ballet. She says the most challenging part of playing a lead in a full length ballet has been memorizing all of the choreography as well as building her stamina to keep up with all the dancing she is doing. When asked what she likes most about playing Swanilda Yoshimoto took a moment before replying, “I enjoy all the dancing and acting I get to do as well as all the playful pantomime my character gets to do.” Laughing a little she adds, “I see myself as a more reversed person so, it’s always fun when I get the chance to step outside myself and become someone completely different.”
Audiences will get two chances to see Ballet Ensemble of Texas’ presentation of Coppelia when it comes to the Irving Arts Center March 25-26.
Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at kddance.wordpress.com