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High-spirited 'Coppelia' perfect conclusion to PBT season

The romantic comedy "Coppelia" provided one kind of perfect conclusion to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 2011-12 season on Friday night at the Benedum Center. It was a high spirited celebration of dance, showcasing the skill and personality of the dancers and supported by a beautiful live performance of the famous score.

After the exciting and challenging artistic ambition of the company's two previous productions — "Uncommon" in February and "A Streetcar Named Desire" in March — "Coppelia" was a return to the familiar pleasures of classic romantic era ballet.

The simple story was enlivened by the overflowing humor of Terrence S. Orr's choreography and staging. There was plenty of broad humor, but also countless witty details that reward viewers who pay close attention. An unexpected sequence of steps zips through a moment with knees close and feet apart, and there's a momentary reference to Charlie Chaplain's Little Tramp and his circling cane.

Alexandra Kochis was irresistible as the female lead, Swanhilde. She and her beau Frantz have a playfully competitive relationship. Kochis danced the fine line perfectly between teasing with spirit and being in love with Franz. Her pantomime had individuality and her dance was exquisite in broad extension and precision of pointe work.

Kochis danced opposite her husband Christopher Budzynski, who was a winning Frantz. Kochis was particularly effective when Swanhilde catches him ardently flirting with a girl on a balcony. Budzynski characteristically made the most of his spectacular technique, especially in his variation of the pas de deux at the end of the ballet, but it was his acting skill that made his role truly sympathetic.

The girl who caught his eye is Coppelia, a title role that is a fulcrum rather than a real part. She's a mechanical doll, made by Dr. Coppelius, and hardly moves at all. In Act II, which takes place in Dr. Coppelius' home, Swanhilde imitates Coppelia and fools the doll's creator.

Stephen Hadala was a hoot as Dr. Coppelius. He leaned into his character's aged awkwardness without ever losing his balance. There were even details reminiscent of the grandfather in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's "The Nutcracker."

The dancers who portrayed Swanhilde's friends were nicely differentiated by the staging. The men who are Frantz' friends had impressive bravura, especially Nurlan Abougaliev's Heinz.

The final act is devoted to celebrations of the wedding of Swanhilde and Frantz. It includes tribute dances by Aurora and Prayer, which were superbly performed by Julia Erickson and Eva Trapp respectively.

Company music director Charles Barker led a wonderful performance of Leo Delibes' music, decisively characterized at comfortable tempi and very well played by the orchestra.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of "Coppelia" will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $22.75 to $90.75. Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org .

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