Roland Petit’s Production of Coppélia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Roland Petit’s Production of Coppélia: Dancers of the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet, English National Ballet Orchestra / Anton Grishanin (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 11.7.2013. (JPr)

Principal Dancers:

Swanilda – Kristina Shapran
Franz – Sergei Polunin
Coppelius – Anton Domashev

Coppélia is the most charming and light-hearted of all ballets and has been so since it was first created in Paris in 1870. Herein lies the perennial problem with ballet – it is often (and I have written this before) great to see the re-creation of a masterpiece but ‘re-creation’ essentially is all it often 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 for it can be guaranteed to remain big enough in future years without it changing.

Some people are trying to do this, notably Peter Schaufuss, and he was also involved in bringing Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet back to London. Why am I repeating myself? Well, at the interval for this performance a self-styled ballet expert was walking up and down outside the London Coliseum telling all who would listen to him how Coppélia needs ‘colour’ because of how much ‘colour’ there is in Delibes’ score and that we were not seeing the ‘definitive’ version of the ballet that he suggested the current Royal Ballet production was. He also pontificated that Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling was the worst ballet he had ever seen and had walked out of it, and this made me question what he wanted from a night at the ballet.

This is not the place for me to debate the issue fully but I am happy to see classical ballet strive to evolve and not just do again what has been done countless times before, and so this was why I enjoyed my first look at Roland Petit’s 1975 Coppélia. The legendary choreographer created it mainly for himself it seems because he danced Coppelius in it and extended the (his?) part significantly whilst thinning out the story elsewhere. Nevertheless, the kernel of the ballet’s simple plot is still there: it was inspired by E T A Hoffmann’s tale, Der Sandmann, and concerns a crazy scientist and toy-maker Dr Coppelius (here a rather younger-than-usual, Svengali-like figure) who has made a life-sized mechanical doll that – from a distance – is so realistic that Franz has the urge to get to know her better, even though he is betrothed to his true love, Swanilda. The story – what there is of it even originally – is basically over after Act II when Swanilda and her six playful companions investigate Coppelius’s house and she dresses as the doll and pretends to come to life. The Act ends with the complete humiliation of the poor deluded fool. Roland Petit seems to have realised that story is virtually now at an end and most of Act III and its ‘traditional’ selection of divertissements is jettisoned for Franz and Swanilda’s wedding celebrations and there is no rapprochement for Coppelius and all concerned: he remains as broken as the doll he holds in his hands as the curtain falls.

Even before Léo Delibes’ delightful score gets underway we heard a fairground organ grinding out Swanilda’s waltz tune. It made me think a little, for some reason, about puppet theatre and I found this reflected in some of the jerky movement of the 12 flamboyantly uniformed Hussars and their bustled and bonneted companions. The curtain rises on a grey courtyard setting and we are outside the town barracks, the Prelude to Coppélia gives an opportunity for a little scene setting (such as it is) and for Franz to introduce himself with a quick whirl around the stage. (Here Petit gives the character something extra to do because he will spend an extended time in Act II ‘under the influence’ and asleep.) In the choreography for the soldiers there is much parading around, they are given hints of the Csárdás and the girls seem to be mostly about to do the Can-Can. It is all very French in an ‘ooh-la-la’ way and there is much shrugging, pouting and kissing, as well as, lots of grinning. Also cosmopolitan – but perhaps not very PC to some modern tastes is the amount of bottom wiggling we see especially from Swanilda’s six pink tutu-ed friends.

There is something a touch sad about Coppelius’s infatuation her with Swanilda that has made him create a doll in her likeness: it cannot reject him while the real one will. He is an ‘aging dandy’ or a lounge-lizard – and for those of a certain generation think of Leslie Phillips’s ‘Oh, hello!’ film persona. When Coppelius is seen ‘romancising’ his creation these moments actually achieved some of the pathos I have seen during similar vignettes from some great Russian circus clowns. The Stanislavsky’s Anton Domashev was a consummate character dancer and for a few moments genuinely made me believe he thought he could use a magic spell to put Franz’s soul into his doll and that she would really be alive for him. Truthfully Petit was a little overindulgent here and this part of the evening does begin to drag just a little, regardless of how good Domashev is.

The Stanislavsky’s senior principal Kristina Shapran is slender and long-limbed with a cute doll-like face that is useful for Swanilda in Act II. Despite a couple of noticeable mishaps she danced neatly with speedy and precise footwork and was suitably mischievous and charming where necessary. Here and there I felt she was a little too careful with her steps and was aided by her conductor, Anton Grishanin, who seemed to slow things down for her on occasions. As her feckless suitor Franz, all eyes were on Sergei Polunin – the almost self-styled ‘bad boy of ballet’. Whether it is a case of saying things just to make a name for himself I do not know. Here Polunin lets his formidable agility and strong technique do the talking for him. He has something off the haunted look of Baryshnikov about him but for me has much more charisma than his distinguished predecessor had. His impressive jumps are weightless, his spins superfast but there was just a little untidiness here and there in his partnering that is very forgivable and partly stemmed from his ballerina being just a little too tall for him. Nevertheless Polunin smiled throughout as if he was enjoying himself and so, as a result, did we in the audience.

After the superb playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the same pit for the Boston Ballet recently, the orchestra of English National Ballet maintained those high standards with an equally well-played, if rather brisk account of the music for Coppélia under the Stanislavsky’s own conductor, Anton Grishanin.

The Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet has not been to London for nearly ten years and is currently under the directorship of Igor Zelensky. It is developing its repertory to encompass ‘different choreographers, different epochs, different styles’, and staging this Coppélia for the first time in 2012 was part of this. Earlier this year Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling was presented to the Moscow audience for the first time. Yes, that same Mayerling that the opinionated person at the interval walked out of over here. This might not have been his ‘definitive’ Coppélia – there is actually no such thing anyway – and I’ll agree it wasn’t very demanding, but it was most definitely a totally engaging evening for anyone wanting a good night out at the ballet and who might be open to Roland Petit’s different slant on an over-familiar tale.

Jim Pritchard