Nevada Ballet Theatre delivers another holiday treat with ‘Coppelia’

If you — and/or your kids — are suffering from “Nutcracker” withdrawal these days, take heart.

Nevada Ballet Theatre has a Mother’s Day weekend treat that shares many of the qualities that make the beloved “Nutcracker” such a holiday favorite.

“Coppelia,” which closes NBT’s 2013-14 season Friday and Saturday at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, is based on a fanciful tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, who also dreamed up the story behind “The Nutcracker.”

Rather than a nutcracker that magically comes to life, however, “Coppelia” — subtitled “The Girl With the Enamel Eyes” — focuses on the life-sized doll of the title.

And instead of “Nutcracker’s” inventive Drosselmeyer, “Coppelia” has the mysterious Dr. Coppelius, whose mechanical creations inspire a sprightly tale of (among other things) magic and mistaken identity.

True, “Coppelia” doesn’t have a Tchaikovsky score, but Leo Delibes’ music shares some similarities with “The Nutcracker’s” music, according to NBT guest artist Gene Lubas, who is dancing the role of Dr. Coppelius. (Or, to use Lubas’ description, “it’s a lot of acting, with a little bit of dance.” )

Delibes’ score is “very similar to ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” Lubas says, in that “the music has many different tempos — and lots of color.”

James Canfield, NBT’s artistic director — who says he has rechoreographed a lot of the ballet originally created in the 1980s for the Portland-based Oregon Ballet Theatre — describes Delibes’ score as one of the greatest in ballet, “because the timing of the comedy is so important, and the score helps tell the story.”

A live orchestra, featuring Las Vegas Philharmonic musicians, will perform that score, heightening its effect.

“That interaction” between the dancers and the musicians, “when that comes together, instead of being automatic, everyone has to be in the moment,” Canfield says. “There’s a lot of freedom within that, to really be in this moment, in this character, and become real.”

That emotion is part of “what I love about the story ballets,” he says. “If attention is not given to detail, if you’re not really acting and being real, it’s just a bunch of senseless pantomime.”

Although Lubas’ role as Dr. Coppelius requires more acting than dancing, “you have to really know the music,” Lubas says, because “it dictates a lot of the acting.”

For example, during one scene, where Dr. Coppelius punishes his most beloved creation, “it has to be right with the music,” Lubas says. “I’m hearing it in my sleep.”

That musical immersion also inspires Lubas’ thoughts regarding his character, a loner who remains an enigma to village neighbors, including Swanhilde and her friends, who invade Dr. Coppelius’ inner sanctum to find out more about Coppelia.

“I call them ‘the mean girls,’ ” Lubas says of Swanhilde and her pals. “They’re like a bunch of high school or sorority girls — selfish and out for fun. And mean to older people.”

As for Dr. Coppelius, “he’s a loner,” acknowledges Lubas, a former artistic director of the Cirque du Soleil shows “Viva Elvis” and “Zarkana” who teaches at the NBT Academy.

“Some things happened, or didn’t happen, in his past,” Lubas says. Perhaps “he had a family and something happened to them — and him. The life-size dolls are basically taking the place of the family.”

Those life-size dolls also have a powerful effect on his neighbors — including Swanhilde’s sweetheart Franz, who finds himself mesmerized by Coppelia. She never seems to do anything but sit on Dr. Coppelius’ balcony, but that hardly dampens Franz’s determination to meet her. Or Swanhilde’s determination to check out the competition. (Alissa Dale and Stephan Azulay will dance the roles of Swanhilde and Franz, respectively, at both performances.)

In addition to the live orchestra accompaniment, two other production elements will heighten the ballet’s effect: the imaginative costumes and sets designed by Tony-winner Desmond Heeley.

Originally created for the Houston Ballet, Heeley’s sets and costumes convey a fanciful, storybook feel — and reflect the imagination and artistry of the renowned designer, who has worked with legends theatrical (Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole) and operatic (Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland).

Heeley sent Canfield a design sketch of Dr. Coppelius’ wig — including such descriptive notes as “springy … not too curly or wavy, just bent.” Now posted on Canfield’s office wall, Heeley’s drawing “will stay with me forever,” Canfield says.

For now, however, Canfield is in the NBT studio, supervising rehearsals for the ballet’s third act, which sets the stage for a happy ending celebrated by the entire village — even Dr. Coppelius.

“Up! Up! Up!” Canfield urges, as the dancers rise en pointe, their arms lifted in celebration, and NBT’s artistic coach, Cynthia Gregory, comments on their performance.

“Bring more character to it, more flavor,” she suggests.

Easier said than done — except, perhaps, for Gregory, who danced the role of Swanhilde “all my life,” or at least the part of it when she reigned as “America’s prima ballerina assoluta,” to quote Rudolf Nureyev, in 26 years with American Ballet Theatre.

Along with the appeal of the ballet’s “light-hearted” qualities, “there’s a lot of pathos in Dr. Coppelius,” Gregory says. “You feel for him.” (Even if you’re dancing the “mischievous” role of Swanhilde.)

Combine the comedic and dramatic elements, all danced to Delibes’ “fabulous” score, and “Coppelia” ranks as “a nice piece for the family,” Gregory says. “It’s just a delight to do.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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