My grandmother kept a box of bonbons hidden away in a drawer. They came in a range of succulent pastels: raspberry pink, strawberry pink, peach, orange, pistachio and coconut. And they were very very sweet. The same could be said of San Francisco Ballet’s production of Coppélia, which opened this week. Pastels and sweetness dominate. Whether you like it, crave it or shun it, is really a matter of personal taste.

Vitor Luiz and Frances Chung © Erik Tomasson
Vitor Luiz and Frances Chung
© Erik Tomasson

That isn’t to say that the dancing wasn’t wonderful. It was dazzling. Frances Chung (in raspberry pink) led the cast as the adorable Swanilda, and she has all the necessary crisp precision and fleet grace. Chung was partnered by Vitor Luiz (in soft chocolate and pistachio), who clearly enjoyed enacting as well as dancing Franz, the distracted lover with the teenage hormones.

The choreography is by George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova, who had danced with the Ballet Russes and like Balanchine had undoubtedly seen early versions of the ballet. The credits cite Marius Petipa’s choreography as foundational and there is much of the flavor of that 19th-century choreographer in the ballet. But those hops on pointe, intricate footwork and electrifying speed are all Balanchine. The choreography for Swanilda is so Patty McBride, the New York City Ballet dancer who premiered the part in 1974.

This version of Coppélia is a testament to Balanchine’s ability to honour the history of dance with equanimity and grace, whilst experimenting with his own language, abstract and dedicated to form, with minimalist setting and costuming. His ballets, which emphasized movement and line and reduced narrative to a thematic concept, were to become the ballet revolution of the 20th century.

Coppélia is a storybook ballet chockfull of all the characteristic formulas, an idealized presentation of love, a lineup of solos, especially in the third act wedding celebration and oodles of mime. Even though the story is comic, the last act still has enough tiaras, tulle and rhinestones to sink the Titanic.

Because of its ties to narrative and the early conventions of the form, mime makes up a fair amount of the dance.

The ballet opens in a village square, embowered with flowers. The ancient Doctor Coppelius (Patrice Molat in silvery chocolate) is seen entering his home, where Coppélia, a beautiful young girl sits on the balcony, reading a book. Franz, Swanilda’s fiancé, seems to be having doubts about where his heart’s desire is placed: Coppélia is just too beautiful. A squadron of villagers arrive (pistachio with lavender boots) to dance a mazurka and a czarda in celebration of the upcoming Festival of Bells. Although these balletic interpretations of national country dances frequently used elements of character dancing, the choreography is more graceful, allowing no clear difference from other dancing in the ballet. Franz and his pals tease Doctor Coppelius, and the old man drops the key to his house. One of Swanilda’s girl pals finds the key and the girls (strawberry pink) decide to enter Doctor Coppelius’ house. Just as they disappear inside, the smitten Franz appears carrying a ladder. He intends to visit the beautiful Coppélia in a less than conventional way.

Pascal Molat as Coppelius © Erik Tomasson
Pascal Molat as Coppelius
© Erik Tomasson
The second act takes place in the inventor’s workshop, where dolls of various sizes and design are easily set into motion. The entire ballet is made fanciful by the careful set and costume designs by Roberta Guidi di Bagno. The girls are having a grand time when Doctor Coppelius returns. Swanilda disappears behind the curtain where Coppélia, who the girls have discovered is only a doll, sits reading her book. Swanilda swaps places with the doll, and when the inventor opens the curtain to admire his creation, the impish village girl causes havoc – all of it exquisitely rendered in the dancer’s imitation of the juddering movements of a mechanical doll. The pas de deux between Doctor Coppelius and Swanilda as the doll Coppélia is one of the most fun and charming duets in the classical ballet repertoire. Franz almost loses his soul to the black magic of Doctor Coppelius when the old man tries to use him to animate the doll Coppélia, but the disguised Swanilda comes to his rescue. Franz realizes the advantage of loving a real live girl, and the ballet moves swiftly on to the final act and the wedding celebration of the two no-longer-estranged lovers.

The final act is a monument to girl power, with dozens of little girls in tutus (peach pink) and tiaras galore dancing the Waltz of the Golden Hour. Here, all the individual solos are bathed in their pastel light .

The sweetness may not be to your taste, but it is always a privilege to see talented dancers. And the ballet cannot be put aside, showing as it does the refined tenderness that Balanchine and Danilova used in their revisioning of a more innocent time.