By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.
Robert LaFosse is very familiar with the ballet Coppélia. First, he danced it as a 14-year-old student in the corps de ballet with his dance school. Then, he joined American Ballet Theatre and danced both in the corps and as Franz, the ballet’s male lead who becomes infatuated with the doll, Coppélia. After he joined New York City Ballet (NYCB) as a principal in 1986, he again danced the role of Franz. And now, for the past 15 years or so, LaFosse continues to perform with NYCB in this ballet, but this time as Dr. Coppélius, the leading character role.
For the first time, on March 29-30, in Westchester County, New York, just a month after NYCB’s own run, LaFosse will perform Dr. Coppélius in Scarsdale Ballet Studio’s first ever full-length production, Coppélia. He will be reunited with his long-time NYCB colleague, Diana White, now the founding artistic director of Scarsdale Ballet Studio and a repetiteur with the George Balanchine Trust.
White says she chose Coppélia as the studio’s first full-length ballet because it is a classic that appeals to audiences of any age. There will also be parts for all the dancers at Scarsdale Ballet Studio – the youngest will portray dolls and jesters, the intermediate students will be in the character dances, and the advanced dancers will play the female lead Swanilda and Swanilda’s friends and dance solo variations in the third act.
“All of the elements are there: acting, classical ballet technique, folk dances, slapstick and bravura,” White adds. “Also, I believe the connection to 19th century ballet needs to be reinforced, both for our audiences and for our students.”
So who better to take on the lead character role and be in the studio to coach these dancers new to this ballet than LaFosse?
“I’ve had a lot of experience with this character, from both sides – from doing it and then also doing another character acting with it,” LaFosse says. “So I’ve done a thorough investigation.”
White agrees, saying, “Robby has danced the classics as well as ballets by all the 20th century masters. His amazing acting skills gave him a long career as a ‘character’ dancer, too.”
“I’ve always been pretty good at characters and acting, so it was a natural progression,” LaFosse says of his ongoing career of character roles. “Although I typically don’t look like Franz, I get a prosthetic nose and a wig, and I transform myself. Each year, when we do it at City Ballet, it changes and grows, and it gets more and more complex with age.”
In Scarsdale, LaFosse has set all of the second act pantomime with the two dancers who will play Swanilda and has coached other scenes with the student dancers.
Aside from the enormous amount of knowledge LaFosse can share about this particular ballet, he can also offer these dance students the experience of working with a professional. White mentions that not only does LaFosse enter the studio as a professional but that he also expects the Scarsdale dancers to behave that way.
“I think the fact that they’re getting to work with a professional is all in itself an education,” LaFosse says. “They can learn and grow. That’s mainly what I hope to achieve: to let them see what it’s like to work with a professional.”
“Ballet is no more archaic than Shakespeare or Michelangelo or Bach, but it depends on living dancers to pass it from body to body,” White adds. “Robby and I, and all of us at my school, take this responsibility very seriously, and so we keep it going by passing it on.”
All of the Scarsdale students must be excited about this unique opportunity to work so closely with LaFosse and be a part of such a classic ballet. LaFosse, too, is looking forward to this experience and to another chance to be on stage.
“What I always look forward to is being on stage in front of the audience, that actual moment,” LaFosse says. “All the preparation is the work, and then the reward is the performance. I really enjoy being on stage. I’m thrilled to be doing this character outside of New York City. It’s a really wonderful opportunity.”
“I’m a little jealous, I suppose,” White adds. “He still gets to go on stage!”
Scarsdale Ballet Studio’s Coppélia will be performed on Saturday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 30 at 1:30 p.m. at the Dance Lab at SUNY Purchase in Purchase, NY. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for children under the age of 12 and can be purchased by calling 914-725-8754.
Photo (top): Former NYCB principal Robert LaFosse will perform in Scarsdale Ballet Studio’s upcoming production of Coppélia. Photo courtesy of Diana White.