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Coppelia is given full-scale production by Gwinnett Dance Ensemble

To fans of classical narrative ballet, we live in an age of excerpts. Many companies find it economically -- and technically -- more feasible to present only the most popular acts from a standard work, so that an evening with a regional dance ensemble tends to be a production of "Ballet's Greatest Hits."

Whether the reason the short attention span of today's audiences or the lack of federal funding to support full-scale productions, most aficionados agree that classical ballet in America has suffered a setback.

While Atlanta is a major source for ballet in the Southeast -- thanks to the legacy of Atlanta Ballet dancer/choreographers Dorothy Alexander, Robert Barnett and Pittman Corey -- the city hasn't escaped from this downward spiral. Outside of the Atlanta Ballet, full-length productions of classical ballets are rare, often considered too ambitious.

But for the Gwinnett Dance Ensemble, they're just par for the course.

Founded in 1992 as the performance company of the Lawrenceville School of Ballet, the ensemble has in recent years specialized in full-length productions of such ballets as Romeo and Juliet and Sleeping Beauty. It was a conscious choice for founder and artist director Phyllis Allen, who sees these productions as a way to technically challenge her dancers, as well as gain professional validity for her company.

"We are classical-ballet oriented, and we always will be," observes Allen, a former student of Robert Barnett. "And we have a pretty dedicated group of dancers."

The ensemble's upcoming production of Coppelia adds another full-length ballet to their repertoire.

Coppelia is considered to be not only the greatest of the "comedy" ballets, but also one of the most important works in the chronological history of ballet. Choreographed by the French dancer Arthur Saint Leon, who was the first to publish a notation system of choreography in 1852, the ballet features a score by French ballet composer Leo Delibes. Premiering in Paris in 1870, it was the last ballet to be produced at the Paris Opera before the siege of Paris and the cultural revolution that followed.

And Coppelia was considered to be something of a cultural revolution in itself. It was deliberately created to be "of the people," incorporating folk dances and portraying regular village folk as its main characters, rather than figures from mythology or royalty. Its creation was a reflection of new, socially democratic beliefs. Added to that, it holds a place in the waning golden era of 19th century romantic ballet.

Coppelia tells the story of dollmaker Dr. Coppelius and his prize creation, Coppelia, a doll so life-like that men are smitten with her, particularly a village youth named Franz, who never realizes that she's not real. His former fiancee, Swanhilde, sneaks into Dr. Coppelius' workshop and impersonates the doll, winning her fiancee back and providing the obligatory happy ending, complete with wedding, in this cheeriest of ballets.

The Gwinnett Dance Ensemble is made up of 35 dancers, but 56 will be used in Coppelia, ranging in age from 10 to 40. Principle roles will be danced by adult professionals. Director Allen is drawing heavily on the original choreography by Arthur Saint Leon, but some additional choreography has been added by her and her associate director, Amy Orr, who also plays Swanhilde.

After last year's production of the tragic Romeo and Juliet, with its masterfully brooding score by Prokofiev, Allen admits that she -- along with her dancers -- has loved working on the Coppelia.

"I love this ballet," says Allen, "The music is so light-hearted -- it's happy and uplifting. And it's easy to understand, so it's good for people who have never been exposed much to ballet.

"In fact," the director says with a sly laugh, "I think that Coppelia is much more fun than Nutcracker." n

The Gwinnett Dance Ensemble presents Coppelia on Feb. 23 and 24 at 8 p.m., and Feb. 25 at 2:30 p.m., at the Gwinnett Cultural Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway. Ticket prices are $10 for student, seniors, and children, $12 in advance, and $15 at the door. For tickets, call the Gwinnett Cultural Center box office at 770-623-4966, extension 143, or call TicketMaster at 404-249-6400.

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