Still winded from a run-through of Swanilda’s 10-minute Act III pas de deux, Lesley Rausch walks through her variation with Pacific Northwest Ballet ballet master Otto Neubert. “You have a killer instep; show that to the audience,” says Neubert. As they move along the diagonal together—a kind of pas de cheval into chassé pas de bourrée on pointe, 14 subtly different times in a row—he encourages the soloist to make more of the end of each pas de bourrée. New timing and a tighter fifth suddenly make the old-fashioned sequence exquisite. Neubert adds, “Let the movement originate from the shoulders,” and Rausch’s port de bras becomes part of the step’s charm.
This dainty variation—like its accompanying pas de deux and coda—was originally created by Petipa, and George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova included it when they made their Coppélia in 1974. PNB called on one of the original New York City Ballet cast members, Judith Fugate, to set the ballet this spring. She only had a few weeks, but, as she says, “Not having everything chewed up and handed to you develops you as an artist.”
Swanilda, the ballet’s lead role, certainly calls for an artist. Or two, suggests PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal: “One who walks around on her heels acting feisty and the other an elegant, refined ballerina.” When Swanilda sees her boyfriend Franz falling for the very quiet, very still Coppélia, she investigates and gleefully discovers that Franz’s precious beloved is only a doll. Swanilda saves Franz from the machinations of dollmaker Dr. Coppélius and, without any recrimination, the two get married, completely in love. The dancer performing Swanilda needs to project inquisitiveness, spirit and charm. She needs comedic timing, but tenderness, too. She’s not above an occasional moment of girlish pique. And she’s young: The first Swanilda, in 1870 at the Paris Opéra, was only 16.
To get into character, Rausch looked for personality traits she shared with Swanilda: She feels they both have spunk, intelligence and energy to spare. “Five years ago I was very uncomfortable putting myself in an acting mindset,” says Rausch, who is known for a regal, technical excellence that suits abstract Balanchine ballets. She saw an opportunity for growth with this role and enjoyed feeling Swanilda’s childlike wonder and playfulness. Hers was a Swanilda who danced to have fun.
Act III presents the most technical challenges. It’s more than just dancing fast at the end of a long ballet. “The pas de deux,” Rausch explains, “has awkward moments, so you’re using your body to make it controlled and smooth.” One such moment is the bird lift—or “nightmare lift,” as Boal calls it. Rausch has to get her hips, not ribs, to make contact with her partner’s shoulder—all in one seamless phrase. To accomplish this, Rausch focused on staying pitched forward and keeping her and her partner’s left hands in front so both could sense her balance.
The variation is mostly hops on pointe. Because Rausch has super-flexible feet, she adjusted her arch and pulled back on her ankle to accomplish the plié. Unlike other jumps, “you can’t cushion with your feet here,” says Boal. He recommends coordinating the landing through the knees and quads to cushion above the feet.
Also challenging is the coda’s 16-count double manège. Rausch advises: “Pick points to focus on and plan where you’re going to step.” Boal adds, “Bank on the turns. Lean back to round the corner.” Coppélia ends happily for Swanilda, as it did for Rausch. Rausch went on a week earlier than scheduled and gave two strong performances. Her Swanilda never became saccharine and proved a joy to watch. At the beginning of the Act III marathon, she pulled off a luxurious, three-second hold on an airy arabesque. Stamina? Not an issue!