Arts and Culture

If you’ve been a ballet dancer for more than a few years, you’ve probably done Coppélia. Several times.

Louisville Ballet’s Christy Corbitt Miller had to think for a minute, as she tallied up the number of times she’s been involved.

“This is my… one, two, three, fourth different version of the ballet, my fifth time doing it,” Miller said.

She’s been dancing with the company for 12 years, most recently as part of the 2011 Louisville Ballet’s production of Coppélia, which was set in the traditional 19th century European village that most audiences expect.

Coppélia, a classic of the ballet repertory, was first performed in Paris in 1870. And it’s not usually the most groundbreaking work in a ballet company’s season.

“I am going to be perfectly honest: while I love the ballet, I have never been necessarily all that excited about it coming around – until now,” Miller said.

But this time is different. “I love this new interpretation. The fact that it is set here is something I think our community is really going to grab onto.”

Artistic director Robert Curran has moved the setting to Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood in the fall of 1917. He had long pondered a new setting, even before he came to Louisville in 2013.

The story was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, writer of the story that became The NutcrackerCoppélia centers around a European village and an inventor who makes a life-sized mechanical doll. Curran said he wanted to free Coppelia from the kids’ table.

“There are a lot of levels in there,” Curran said. “A lot of mature levels, a lot of concepts that can extend beyond the fairy tale.”

By setting the story just before the United States entered World War I, Curran has added a level of foreboding to the show.

“It’s a production that’s based on autumn, preparing for winter,” Curran said. “It’s a production that takes that concept further to encapsulate a community coming together to prepare for very difficult times ahead.”

Curran worked with historian and Louisville Metro Councilmember Tom Owen, as well as the staff of the Filson Historical Society, to ground the production in Louisville. Local visual artist Jacob Heustis designed the sets, which include images of St. Boniface Church, the Big Four Bridge, and rows of shotgun houses. Costumes and hairstyles are also historically accurate, and while it’s still ballet, Miller said even the dancers’ movements have been adjusted.

“We are standing very much like the cover of the McCall’s patterns that were made in 1917 and 1918. We have imitated the way they bevel their legs – just to be really true to the period of the time,” Miller said.

This is Louisville Ballet’s first completely new production in over five years. And it was particularly important to Curran that it was made by a locally-based creative team, rather than imported artists from elsewhere. While it’s always a challenge to pay for something new, he wants the company to truly contribute to the city.

“This is Louisville’s ballet company,” Curran said. It’s our responsibility to give people an arts experience, definitely, but also enrich their understanding of the community they live in.”

Coppélia will be performed Oct. 2 and 3 at the Brown Theatre. For more information, go to louisvilleballet.org.

photo via Sam English/Louisville Ballet

Tara Anderson is the host and producer of Five Things, a podcast about the objects that tell our stories.