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Steam Punk Coppelia

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The Nutcracker may be the go-to ballet of the Christmas season. But Arthur Saint-Leon’s lighthearted three-act 1870 ballet, Coppelia – set in a toymakers workshop – is a close second. Both ballets are based on stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann but, as usual, the bleaker aspects of Hoffmann’s psyche are eschewed in favor of treacly fantasy. The dancing, however, offers an abundance of sublime artistry. In a nutshell, Coppelia revolves around a young man named Franz in love with the impetuous Swanilda. But when Franz is swept off his feet by a pretty waving girl (Coppelia) on toymaker Dr. Coppelius’ balcony, Swanilda is determined to get even. Coppelia turns out to be a mechanical doll. In the end, Dr. Coppelius is left a broken old man whose dreams have been shattered. Personally, I’ve always felt most sympathetic toward Dr. Coppelius. After all, he is unjustly punished for merely holding onto his youth and believing he can bring a doll to life.

Fast forward to 2010. This weekend, Chicago’s Corpo Dance Company premieres a radically different version, titled Coppelius. Though it references Saint-Leon’s Romantic-era ballet, it really explores the creative process. Artistic director Christopher McCray’s two-act fusion dance is a modern, ballet and breakdancing reinterpretation of Coppelia. He takes the focus off the mechanical doll of the original title and transfers it to the temperamental Dr. Coppelius, who created her. He also gives it a more jagged edge.

McCray is a great fan of steam punk, a subgenre of science fiction literature set during the Industrial Revolution. His jumping off point is George Mann’s book, The Affinity Bridge, which recalls Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. McCray turns the intimate Links Hall space into the workshop of a mad genius during the age of steam-automated machines. Dr. Coppelius, an anxious inventor lost in thought, enters and waters his polished brass plants with an oil can against various cogs and wheels. The costume palette of black brocade and gray leather sets a smoky, vintage tone.

Over the course of the dance, we observe the inventor as he builds a series of mechanized dolls, both male and female, that eventually smooth out their trance-like herky-jerky moves into more natural gracefulness. But when Dr. Coppelius creates a doll that wins the affections of his girlfriend, he destroys his own work of art…a potent symbol of the artist’s fragile ego.

Performances of Coppelius take place Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 18 at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Links Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield. Tickets: $12-$18. Call 773-281-0824 or visit www.linkshall.org. More info: www.corpodancecompany.com.

Also playing…

Live performances of The Nutcracker abound across the city and suburbs this weekend. But dance and movie lovers can catch a film version of the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, Dec. 19 at 10 a.m. at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash, 8th Floor. Tickets: $20. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com. More info: www.colum.edu/opera.

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