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March 13, 1987|EILEEN SONDAK

SAN DIEGO — "Coppelia" has never been a sure-fire moneymaker like its Christmas counterpart "The Nutcracker," but the California Ballet has made this century-old classic a company tradition just the same.

This weekend, when the troupe unveils its seventh revival of "Coppelia" at the Civic Theatre (2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday), all the familiar trappings of this storybook ballet will be intact, but there will be a new dimension.

"We're going to have a live orchestra for 'Coppelia' for the first time," director Maxine Mahon said. "A year and a half ago, when we planned this, we thought it would sell more tickets, since a lot of people complained about not having live music. This production will give people an opportunity to support two local arts organizations--the ballet company, and the musicians of the San Diego Symphony.

"We're also using the scenery from our original 'Coppelia,' which is much more spectacular than what we've had to use at ECPAC (due to the physical limitations of the East County Performing Arts Center). It's more like an opera set."

This production marks another first for Cal Ballet's "Coppelia"--a home-grown danseur in the lead role. Kevin Engle, who had his first taste of stardom as the Cavalier in a performance of the Christmas "Nutcracker" last year, will dance the part of the flirtatious peasant boy in all three performances.

"This is the first time I've taken a boy all the way to a senior position," Mahon said. "I've made seven Sugar Plum Fairies, but he's the first boy. Kevin is perfect for the role, because he's more of a demi-caractere,and he has a great personality--which is essential for the part of Franz."

Mahon has cast the company's prima ballerina, Denise Dabrowski, in the role of stubborn Swanhilda--alternating with Karen Evans--and Patrick Nollet (Herr Drosselmeyer in "The Nutcracker") as the mad scientist.

"Coppelia," like the popular "Nutcracker," is a full-length ballet based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Despite the sunny, bucolic background, there is a disconcerting side to the ballet, one that evoked fear and fascination in 19th-Century audiences.

The fairy tale revolves around the notion of an evil alchemist attempting to transfer the life essence of an innocent boy into a life-sized windup doll. In the 1870s, when the ballet debuted, the story was taken as a metaphor for the evils of automation.

Today's audiences have no such ambivalence about the ballet. But the classic continues to live on as a crowd pleaser, often with the nefarious Dr. Coppelia reduced to a harmless, self-deluded old toy maker to gloss over the Hoffmannesque overtones--as in this staging.

This full-length ballet, with its energetic folk forms, rustic humor and lively Delibes score, is a favorite of the Cal Ballet because of its wide audience appeal and because of the secrets it holds for the dancers.

"Dancers don't become really good artists if they don't do the classics," Mahon said. "It helps them develop their technique."

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