Impeccable Dancing in BRB’s Coppélia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Delibes, Coppélia: Dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Koen Kessels, produced by Sir Peter Wright, London Coliseum, London, 15.3.2012. (JPr)

Coppélia arrived onto the same stage that recently saw a new production by English National Opera of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which – like this ballet – also involves a character named Dr Coppélius and a mechanical doll that a young man is quite smitten by. This ballet vies with Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée as the most charming and light-hearted of all ballets and was created in Paris in 1870.

In his informative programme note about Coppélia Gerald Dowler reminds the audience of the tragedies that ensued after the première of this sunny work. Within a month its choreographer, Arthur Saint-Léon, was dead, as was the first Dr Coppélius and – even more sadly – the 16-year-old ballerina, Giuseppina Bazzacchi, who had created the role of Franz’s fiancée, Swanilda, had died of smallpox. If this were not enough, the Franco-Prussian war was also about to start and that would close the Opéra where the ballet was first put on. But Coppélia has survived and as Downer explains ‘The thread remains unbroken from the first performance in 1870 to this day.’ That sentence encompasses the magnificence and problem with ballet: it is fantastic – as here – to see the re-creation of a masterpiece but ‘re-creation’ essentially is all it is and whilst appreciating what we are seeing we can only but celebrate those who came before them. In my humble opinion the classical ballet repertory faces something of an uncertain future as it seems to be the domain of the very young or the very old and I am not certain that the audience will remain big enough for all the UK companies to do what they might want to do in future years.

Before I get too maudlin’ let me pay tribute again to the wonderful Birmingham Royal Ballet for bringing London some rare Coppélia performances in Sir Peter Wright’s heart-warming 1995 production. The stage pictures are a touch Turner or Constable but I couldn’t get away from ‘The Village in eastern Europe’ looking a lot like something in Transylvania from the early Hammer Dracula films of around the time this production was conceived. Most will remember the story, the sun is setting and everyone is inside with the doors firmly locked! Of course we are not in a horror story but a love story, and Peter Farmer’s costumes and sets – with Peter Teigen’s subtle lighting – are never less than apt and absolutely enchanting.

Léo Delibes’ delightful score is very familiar and while the brass band elements early on were rather brash, the excellent Koen Kessels and his exuberant Royal Ballet Sinfonia continue to make the case that the music element of ballet performance can no longer be ignored in the twenty-first century. With the utmost respect there seemed a time when any old rubbish would do as long as the dancing was spectacular, but this cannot be so now and absolute attention to the highest standards of music performance – as here – will be important to the survival of the classical ballet repertory.

The ballet’s story is a very simple one and is inspired by E T A Hoffmann’s tale, Der Sandmann, concerns a crazy scientist and toy-maker, Dr Coppélius, who has made a life-sized mechanical doll that – from a distance – is so realistic that the young Franz has the urge to get to know her better, even though he is betrothed to his true love, Swanilda. The plot – what there is of it – is basically over after Act II when Swanilda and her six playful companions investigate Coppélius’s house and she dresses as the doll and pretends to come to life. The Act ends with the complete humiliation of the venerable inventor. Act III basically is just a succession of divertissements for the blessing of a bell and the dances represent the different reasons the bell can be tolled – Dawn, Prayer, Work (all women!), Betrothal, Call to Arms (all men!) and Peace – danced by Swanilda and Franz. By the end Coppélius, originally an outsider is reconciled with the villagers and becomes part of their community.

Even with such a slight plot there is a lot of mime involved and this is well performed by the entire company. From my seat at the front of the stalls it was a pleasure to see even the corps members at the very back never dropping out of character and rarely losing the sense of joy in their faces; acting and steps were perfectly integrated during the entire evening. Franz knows his power over ladies though in the original ballet – and until the 1950s at the Paris Opéra – it was performed by a woman en travesti and Chi Cao was superb in the role. He was by turns courteous or revealed a twinkling sense of fun and his Act III solos were splendid. He had barely begun when he sailed across the stage in a terrific sideways jump that with his arms and legs outstretched claimed the whole air. (It was this same leap that decades ago had Nureyev’s Franz once nearly disappearing into the wings at the Royal Festival Hall because the performing space was so small.) Chi Cao’s dancing had strength and virility throughout but he was an equally accomplished and sensitive partner to Nao Sakuma as an almost perfect Swanilda. She has an exemplary technique and is an accomplished actor-dancer able to access a full range of emotions through playfulness, love and jealously and it is clear there is a mind at work with every phrase. All her six ‘friends’ (Arancha Baselga, Samara Downs, Maureya Lebowitz, Laura Purkiss, Callie Roberts and Jenna Roberts) deserve a mention because I doubt their contribution at the end of Act I and in Coppélius’s workshop in Act II could hardly be bettered.

As nuanced and witty as Michael O’Hare was a Dr Coppélius the insults he suffered from the mischievous villagers did not seem to register sufficiently to allow any real poignancy to be experienced during his brief Act III moments. The ensemble dancing was virtually impeccable from the Act I Czárdás and through the Act II ‘Festival of the Bell’. Individual contributions saw Angela Paul being a little bland as Dawn but Tyrone Singleton led the ‘Call to Arms’ potently as is only to be expected from this fine dancer. After Chi Cao and Nao Sakuma’s pas de deux the thunderous applause for all concerned was thoroughly well deserved.

One minor quibble – please forgive me – but being so close to the stage I couldn’t take my eyes off all the wrinkles on the boots a number of the male dancers in Act III were wearing. I know this is something I would not have noticed from further away but perhaps it is something the costume department could look into.

Jim Pritchard

Birmingham Royal Ballet visit London’s Sadler’s Wells in October and for details of all their forthcoming performances visit