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DANCE DIARY : What a Doll: ABT's Yan Chen

By Jennie Schulman

Through my years of seeing many a Swanilda in Coppelia, the two ballerinas who made the most lasting impressions on me were the glamorous gal of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Mia Slavenska, and former American Ballet Theatre ballerina Marianna Tcherkassky. To that short listing I can now add the name of ABT's Yan Chen. That elfin, fragile-appearing lass not only possesses the caprice and sense of humor essential to the role of Swanilda; she also displays technical gifts that belie her tiny build. Impeccable batterie, extended balance in attitude and arabesque, and the height she manages to achieve in grande jetƒ indicate that Chen is up there with some of the company's most brilliant technicians.

Who doesn't know the story of the dunce of a hero (or non-hero), Franz, who falls in love with a doll--much to the annoyance of his fiancƒe, Swanilda--and the deluded old dollmaker Dr. Coppelius, who believes that he can make his beloved doll Coppelia into a human being?

Here is one of the few evening-length ballets that is concentrated on sheer fun as well as exuberant character and folk dance. Most three-act ballets are utterly tragic. (Think Giselle, Swan Lake, La Bayadere, and, lately, The Snow Maiden.) And, of course, almost every ballet company you can name produces a Romeo and Juliet, even if some of the troupes can only manage to extract a pas de deux from those eternals.

When Chen, as the intrepid Swanilda, and her reluctant friends invade the home of Dr. Coppelius, they cause havoc among the mechanical dolls. Swanilda manages to take the place of the doll Coppelia, pretending to have come to life, and Chen's comic antics are deliriously winning. Swanilda eventually brings Franz to his senses.

Yan Chen was seen at her most effulgent in the concluding wedding scene. Parrish Maynard as Franz, despite the unsympathetic nature of the role, came through polished and in crisp form. And he turned out to be an ideal partner for Ms. Chen.

Gil Boggs gave the role of Dr. Coppelius some strongly individual twists, the likes of which I haven't seen since Michael Smuin performed the role with ABT many years ago. Boggs has become one of the strongest character dancers in the company.

Among the notable assets in the first act was the "Mazurka," led by Kathleen Moore, Parrish Maynard, Elizabeth Ferrell, and Andrei Dokukin.

There were brisk performances in the second act by Gennadi Saveliev as the Harlequin Doll and Yu Xin as the Chinese Doll.

In addition to the luster brought to the wedding by principals Chen, Maynard, and Boggs, Gillian Murphy as Dawn, and Christina Fagundes as Prayer added radiance to the scene. Nor can we overlook the spirited "Czardas," led by Ferrell and Dokukin near the conclusion of the ballet.

This ABT production was staged and directed by Fredric Franklin, who performed the role of Franz for many years with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. And did he ever make a right good job of it.

The week of June 22-27 saw an artistic double-header for Yan Chen, for she appeared in Coppelia on June 27 and made her debut in the title role of The Snow Maiden on June 24. The latter role was made to order for her other side--the frail, supernatural creature bound to meet a tragic end when she falls in love with the nobleman Misgir. This despite Father Frost's warning that nothing but trouble can ensue from her love for a mortal. (The plot was fully described in our column of June 19.)

Yan Chen's performance fully illustrated her boundless versatility--this time as a creature of utter deliquescent lyricism. Keith Roberts as Misgir supported Chen with utmost finesse, to the extent that we could believe the Snow Maiden actually melted in his arms at the conclusion. The balance of the cast was similar to the one seen on June 19.

Pilobolus Returns to the Joyce

Pilobolus, the 27-year-old troupe packed with four artistic directors and a load of collaborators, returned for its annual one-month stay at The Joyce Theater (June 30-July 25).

During the first week the six-member troupe offered the premiere of "The Hand That Mocked, The Heart That Fed," choreographed by three of the company's artistic directors--Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken--in collaboration with the six dancer-acrobat-gymnasts who make up the company: Rebecca Anderson, Matt Kent, Gaspard Louis, Tamieca McCloud, Trebien Pollard, and Mark Santillano.

The work commences with a scene combining the halcyon with a touch of surrealism. One of the men is standing upright with a woman stretched across his shoulders; the rest are reclining on the ground as if enjoying a leisurely, summer day. Not for long. Before you can say "gung ho," they are at each other with abundant violence.

I have managed to retain a few of the startling patterns: The men succeed in wrapping one of the women's feet around her neck; one of the women stands on a man's face; two men balance one woman on their outstretched hands, manipulating her like a child on a seesaw, but she somehow maintains balance. These are only a few of the "goodies." I have never seen such originality in people pulling each other apart or attempting a sort of massacre. What tempers the mayhem are the movements in slow motion, all of which indicate ease in transferring each sequence to the next one, so that they maintain almost dreamlike dimensions. If anyone can portray violence between the sexes as palatable, the artists who make up Pilobolus have succeeded.

The piece simply titled "Solo" was choreographed by Alison Chase in collaboration with Tamieca McCloud. We see a screen in which three slits are cut out, one after the other. This immediately sets up suspense, compelling us to wonder what is about to occur. We haven't long to wait, for McCloud comes hurling through the center slit with the trajectory of someone shot out of a cannon. (Was she pushed or thrown?) No matter! She takes to the air, throwing herself about in defiance of danger as well as of gravity. She maintains an alluring presence while seemingly defying the gods to throw her off balance. Excitement reigns in "Solo," with McCloud its virtual queen.

A collaboration among the four company men and Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken saw still another aspect of violence--this time in the work titled "Gnomen." Among the definitions of that word listed in my Webster's is "one who knows or examines." The performers seem to be going through whole series of primordial rituals. In these the men put each other through grueling practices in order to demonstrate their strength and thereby gain admittance to a religious order. At the conclusion, the men are kneeling and bowing their heads in supplication. While "Gnomen" was exceptionally well performed, we can't help questioning its inclusion on the same program with the premiere work, as both are fraught with violence.

Another form of religious experience is that of the sun- and water-worshipers in "Day Two," a dazzling aquacade in which all the performers indulge in water sports that again display an unmatched mastery of diversity in acrobatics. As an encore, sliding across a watered-down stage, the performers execute myriad feats that astound and thrill.

From the Heart:

AIDS Benefit

On July 18, the Fire Island Dance Festival presents "Dances From the Heart '98," a benefit for Dancers Responding to AIDS (DRA), a fund-raising program of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Star dancers from famed and emerging companies return to Fire Island Pines, performing outdoors on a stage specially built and illuminated.

This year's roster of performers, still in development, includes dancers from American Ballet Theatre (principal dancer Robert Hill), American Ballroom Theatre, Antigravity, Ballet Hispanico, Cortez & Co., (Contemporary/Ballet), Mark Dendy Dance and Theater, MOMIX, Elisa Monte Dance, New York City Ballet (principal dancer Robert LaFosse), O'Day Dances, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pilobolus Dance Theatre, James Sewell Ballet, White Oak Dance Project (Bessie Award-winner Jamie Bishton), and solo artist Lance Gries. (Artists are subject to change.)

The 1998 Fire Island Dance Festival offers dancegoers a choice of show times: 6 pm with a party for ticket-holders at 5 pm, and 7:30 pm with a party at 8:30 pm. Festival performances take place at 612A Shore Walk, Fire Island Pines. For information, call DRA: (212) 840-0770. q

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