The KVN Dance Company’s intriguing, exuberant – if flawed – reimagining of Coppelia is on tour

United KingdomUnited Kingdom KVN Dance Company’s Coppelia: Towngate Theatre, Basildon, Essex, 17.4.2024. (JPr)

Michael Downing (Dr Coppelius) and Rosie Southall (Coppelia) © Andrea Whelan

Director and Choreographer – Kevan Allen
Costume designer – Wendy Olver
Lighting designer – Mike Robertson
Music composer – Rickard Berg (after Léo Delibes)
Set designer – Justin Williams

Dr Coppelius – Michael Downing
Coppelia – Rosie Southall
Swanhilda – Ellie Fergusson
Franz – Zach Parkin
Reinhardt – Alexander Fadayiro
Gretel – Laura Braid
Peter – Alex Moore
Hildergaard – Celeste Williamson
Inga – Taz Hoesli
Mr Pumpernickel – Oliver Imeson
Mrs Pumpernickel – Sophie Tierney
Little Maisie – Ellis Rose Rother

If you read about KVN Dance Company’s Coppelia on their website (click here) you will read how ‘The original production of Coppelia focuses mostly on the relationship between Swanhilda and her betrothed, Franz and how the doll of Coppelia comes between them. This aspect is explored but this production also focuses on how the doll affects all the relationships amongst the villagers and how Dr Coppelius is ostracised by the community. Through the story we see how the villagers’ perception changes and how he finally overcomes the prejudice and gossip that surrounds him and he eventually becomes accepted.

The existing story of the ballet is expanded and developed as well as the classical score – reinventing and re-interpreting the original inspirations that brought the music and dance together. The performance space will give the overall feel of the audience being ensconced inside the head of a crazy, creative inventor’s workshop. A living, breathing room of curiosities.

This will be a true reworking of the traditional ballet on all levels. Bringing the story to life in an exhilarating and exciting way for the audience of today.’

Those in the KVN’s 12-strong company are from a variety of training backgrounds. It is impossible not to – eventually – be swept-up by their talent in a variety of styles of dance, as well as their enthusiasm and evident commitment to Kevan Allen’s concept for his ‘Classic Remixed: Classic Reborn’ Coppelia. Interestingly, Allen was bringing his full-length work ‘home’ as he trained initially at the Essex Dance Theatre before launching on a distinguished career in choreographing and directing dance. (Maybe it was students from there who surrounded me in the Towngate Theatre.) Allen created his first independent company, Beauxartz when he was 17 and the KVN Dance Company was formed in 2017 to workshop his new Coppelia which was first put on in London in 2021 and is now on tour.

It is not quite an entirely steampunk reimagining of the story though the ticking clock and other mechanical sounds you hear on entering the auditorium suggested otherwise. Justin Williams’s minimal set works functionally for the village square but comes into its own for Coppelius’s workshop with Wendy Olver’s colourful, eclectic costumes complementing all we see.

At best Rickard Berg’s new score – which earned him an ‘Outstanding Creative Contribution’ nomination at the Critics Circle National Dance Awards 2021 – samples Delibes’s original music. Electronic, insistent, typically percussive, and loud, it probably wasn’t heard at its best through the Towngate Theatre’s (less-than-state-of-the-art?) sound system. Nevertheless, it generates the impetus for the irresistible – and almost unceasing – movement we see onstage. And that is an intriguing mashup of the odd moments of classical, musical theatre, contemporary and street, including hip-hop and maybe some pop and lock. Then of course there is the robotic dancing for Coppelia and Coppelius’s other fantastical creations in his workshop during the second – and better – half of KVN’s show. To elaborate the first half of some 45 minutes – and seeming longer – mostly involves the wedding preparations for Swanhilda and Franz overseen by the fastidious Mr Pumpernickel (Oliver Imeson) and his snobbish wife (Sophie Tierney).

Ellie Fergusson (Swanhilda) © Hettie Pearson

It is Zach Parkin (Franz) and notably Ellie Fergusson (winner of the BBC TV’s The Greatest Dancer as Swanhilda) who have the most balletic of the roles and they get a few, captivatingly brief, duets which gives everything the chance to calm down for a little while. They make an engaging couple, though Swanhilda does seem to forgive her errant fiancé rather too easily for his wandering eye on his stag night. It is a fine ensemble but perhaps it is Rosie Southall’s rubber-limbed contortions as Coppelia (controlled by a brick-sized remote control) which is the standout performance.

Dr Coppelius is often absent from the stage during the first half, and we do not see his mechanical doll at all. It is the inability to tell us who Coppelius is – despite the programme saying we will find out – which ultimately undermines Allen’s Coppelia. It says he was ‘revered until his wife passed away’, is now a ‘recluse’ and withdrawn from the community. Apparent he decides to make Coppelia ‘to fill the void she has left’. None of this – and more that we are told – is in the actual work. Coppelius is his usual sinister self, part-inventor and toymaker, part-sorcerer. That he becomes accepted again and celebrates the wedding of Swanhilda and Franz – and receives a gift of money too – seems unlikely in the context of the rest we have seen.

However, Allen’s ending is exuberant, upbeat and uplifting and sends the audience for KVN’s Coppelia out of the theatre smiling, which is no bad thing.

Jim Pritchard

Featured image: Rosie Southall (Coppelia) and Michael Downing (Dr Coppelius) © Andrea Whelan

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