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A Role to Make Him Feel 40 Again

A 73-year-old dancer is back onstage. What he's lost in agility, he makes up in wisdom.

April 29, 2001|ELAINE DUTKA | Times staff writer

Stanley Holden is returning to the spotlight--despite two heart surgeries, one knee replacement and three decades away from the stage.

Inland Pacific Ballet has lured the 73-year-old back into performing to play Dr. Coppelius, the toy maker in "Coppelia," once a signature part for the retired principal dancer at London's Royal Ballet. He is also co-directing the production for the 7-year-old Montclair-based company.

"Stanley was called one of the great Coppeliuses of all time by the New York Times' Clive Barnes," says Victoria Koenig, Inland Pacific's co-founder and artistic director. "And his ability to integrate physical comedy with mime drew comparisons with Charlie Chaplin. For the young dancers in my company, Stanley is living history."

In fact, Holden is as comfortable teaching as he is performing, having run his own dance studio on Pico Boulevard for nearly 30 years. His class became the workout of choice for local and touring ballet professionals, including American Ballet Theatre's Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Holden moved his operation to Culver City's Conjunctive Points Dance Center in 1997. But in January, he and the center's other resident teachers were forced to move to make room for a new dance academy formed by Debbie Allen. Holden has since cut back his class load, entering what he calls "semi-retirement."

On a day off from "Coppelia" rehearsals, the dapper, soft-spoken Holden took a lunch break at a Ventura Boulevard cafe. Tackling a rare steak with fries, he reflected on his current situation, highlights of his 50-plus years in dance and his imminent return to the stage.

Question: The part of the eccentric Dr. Coppelius--whose creation, a doll, comes between the ballet's hero and the heroine--is mostly pantomime. Still, it's a pretty intensive workout. How are you holding up?

Answer: Act 2 is particularly exhausting--physically and mentally--since I'm onstage virtually nonstop. I was stunned when Vicky [Koenig] called me last fall and asked me to perform the part. Though I danced it hundreds of times at the Royal, I haven't done it since 1978, [as a guest artist] at the Pennsylvania Ballet. I'd like to perform it with the same agility I did as a 21-year-old but have had to learn how and when to pull back.

Q: How so?

A: Transferring some of the action to a table, for instance. It takes time for me to get up and down from the floor, and the music gets away from me. If I ever thought I was performing with less verve, however, I'd stop. I'm in pretty good shape, having done all those moves with my students--whatever my body was capable of, anyway. Dancers always bounce more quickly because we can't not be dancers. And there is one advantage that comes with age: I need less makeup to play a 70-year-old.

Q: How do you see Dr. Coppelius? Some play him as malevolent, while others play him sweet and crazy.

A: Dr. Coppelius is often seen as a green-eyed monster, but I'm putting more humor in the role and making him less sinister. He's someone who very much wants to be liked, though the villagers find him weird.

Q: Did the situation at Conjunctive Points force you to retire from teaching?

A: Not really. I transferred my classes to Carla Luna's Dance Arts Academy and began to rethink my life. Suddenly it came to me: I'd devoted 31 years to teaching and had nothing more to achieve. Having passed along a lot of happiness, this is my time for me. Still, I haven't fully severed my bond: I'm holding two classes a week at Agoura's California Dance Theatre to keep the irons hot--or the toes pointed, you could say.

Q: Conjunctive Points owners Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smithessentially evicted you and the others. Did that leave a bitter taste in your mouth?

A: Things were badly executed. We put the place on the map and deserved better. Once a community attending each other's classes, now we're barely in touch. The Smiths were concerned with "profile" and wanted Debbie Allen's name. Fortunately, I've gotten over all that. "Coppelia" fell into my lap at just the right time.

Q: You're co-directing the ballet; what version are you re-creating?

A: The Royal Ballet version, filmed for TV by the BBC in the 1960s. I've removed some steps the BBC put in--steps I always hated--and reinserted others. Though I have veto power, it's a puzzle we're all putting together. Vicky and [Inland Pacific] ballet master Randall Graham set up the basic moves, and I make adjustments. I feel like I'm Tommy Lasorda and they're my pitching and batting coaches.

Q: "Coppelia" is a big bite for Inland Pacific, which is only 7 years old.

A: True. I'm excited more for them than I am for myself--and am very impressed so far. The guest artists--Jordi Ribera, Tina LeBlanc, and Patricia Tomlinson are top-notch. The only thing missing is an orchestra. A conductor works with you. If the tempo of prerecorded music is too fast or too slow, it can kill you.

Q: Are you worried about overshadowing the Inland Pacific dancers who are just starting out?

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