American Ballet Theatre's new production of "Coppelia" has a legendary history. The dancers are learning the ballet from Frederic Franklin, once premier danseur and later ballet master of the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
"I have been associated with this ballet since 1933, when [Kirov Ballet regisseur] Nicholas Sergeyev came out of Russia," Franklin, 82, said by phone during a break between recent company rehearsals in New York.
"We staged the first and second acts, but not the third. Nobody had [that act] when we first danced it. In 1938, Mr. Sergeyev came back and staged the entire ballet. More or less, that is what this is. What [Alexandra] Danilova did in 1938 is what Paloma [Herrera] [one of ABT's rising stars] will be doing."
The Franklin production will be seen for the first time from Friday through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. (ABT opens today with a mixed repertory program through Thursday.)
"Coppelia" has a curious history. The story of a boy ' who falls in love with a mechanical doll was adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "Der Sandman" (which reappears in Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann"). The ballet, set to Delibes' infectious score, had considerable success when, after three years of rehearsal, it premiered May 25, 1870, at the Paris Opera.
Arthur Saint-Leon created the choreography. But because male dancing at that time had plummeted in reputation and technique, he created Franz originally as a travesty role and kept the demands on the dancer modest. (The travesty tradition, incidentally, continued in France well into the 1950s.)
Choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov created their own version, however, when they introduced the ballet in Russia in 1884. Saint-Leon's choreography for the third act had been completely lost, although the scenario of the ballet had survived. So they made up the entire act, including the traditional grand pas de deux for the two lovers.
"There was no music for the male variation," Franklin said, "so they went to Delibes' 'Sylvia' for the solo. It's been there ever since."
Most productions danced today, including the Sergeyev, are derived from the Petipa and Ivanov version.
"The classical [choreography] I haven't tampered with at all," Franklin said. "The mazurka and csardas have been spiced up. The pas de deux, the same.
"To bolster the last act, I have taken the csardas from the first act and put it into the last to give the ensemble something to do. Instead of two big character numbers, one on top of the other, which never made too much sense, I've taken it out and put it in the last act."
As for interpolating their own star steps, the ABT dancers "haven't asked for any latitude," Franklin said.
"They dance verbatim the dances as we have them, as they came into the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Of course, there are different ways of doing things. The emphasis is different, a little more of this, less of that."
As far as the music is concerned, the cuts in the first act are "negligible," Franklin said.
"There are no cuts in the second act. In the third act, two little dances have come out. I always work from memory. I've done the ballet so many times. Name the company, I've done it for [them]. All that becomes second nature. I don't have notes. I don't have a video. It's all in my head. Out it comes. That's the way I work."
It's worked well enough, he feels, even though rehearsal time at ABT has "not been long enough, as always, with any ballet company today.
"There are three acts of 'Othello' in one studio, 'Swan Lake' around the corner, 'Fancy Free,' 'Rodeo'--all going on, and I'm in the middle of it. The dancers come in for an hour. They don't know what has happened. We're working with it all."
Hardly the conditions to foster another "golden age" of ballet.
"First of all, I suppose, what you might call the golden age, the golden age of ballet in this country was when two companies could tour and go out for six months. We went the northern route, and Ballet Theatre went the southern route. There were enough audiences and towns to play. We were on the trains with our own sleepers.
"We toured every little town and hamlet. Actually, that's how we made our names. We kept going back and people recognized us. It was 16 years of hard touring with Ballet Russe. People knew us. That's how the aura was made.
"Going on the train was wonderful. Unlike buses, on the trains we could walk around. . . . And it happened many times, if we were in Denver for a one-night stand, if the train didn't leave until 3 a.m., we'd rehearse until 2 a.m. We never thought anything of it."
The golden age was different in another way too.
"In those days, we had to do another ballet," Franklin said. "We couldn't put on just 'Coppelia.' People wouldn't come. They wanted their money's worth. So we did 'Gai^te Parisienne' at the end of it."
* American Ballet Theatre will open a six-day engagement at 8 p.m. today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Mixed repertory will be danced today through Thursday. "Coppelia" will be danced Friday through Sunday. $18 to $59. (714) 740-7878 (Ticketmaster).