Excepting Suriname, Uruguay has the smallest population of any nation in South America; but, if the excellence of Ballet Nacional Sodre is anything to go by, at least culturally, it appears to punch well above its weight! Formed in 1935, the Uruguayan National Ballet has had a chequered history. In the 1970s, it teetered on the edge of oblivion when a fire destroyed its headquarters; a lost infrastructure that took 40 years to rebuild.  

The national ballet company’s peculiar name derives from being situated within an umbrella arts and telecommunications organisation – Servicio Oficial de Difusión Radio Eléctrica – that also encompasses opera and several orchestras. Its upwards trajectory was given back-to-back boosts in 2009/10 by the opening of a new 2000-seat theatre, followed by the appointment of Julio Bocca as artistic director. From Buenos Aires, Bocca gained immense popularity and international fame as a long-serving principal of American Ballet Theatre. 

Ciro Tamayo (Frantz) © Santiago Barreiro
Ciro Tamayo (Frantz)
© Santiago Barreiro
Overnight, Bocca lent his international prestige to Uruguayan ballet and he has spent the past six years building a company – and an eclectic repertoire – to justify that status: introducing work by Forsythe and Kylián as well as emerging choreographers, such as Stuttgart Ballet’s Demis Volpi. But, it is the classical repertoire that still dominates and this brief Christmas season at the Gran Teatre de Liceu, Barcelona’s beautiful opera house in-all-but-name, provided a rare opportunity to catch a performance of Coppélia; since this most innocuous of the great classical ballets is so rarely performed in the United Kingdom by the major British companies.

Ballet Nacional Sodre's Coppélia is presented in the choreography of Cuban-born Enrique Martínez, which Bocca had danced for ABT. Martínez joined the American company in 1947, progressing from corps dancer to assistant director by the time his Coppélia premiered (in Brooklyn) on Christmas Eve, 1968. An important British influence lies in the sunny adaptation of Léo Delibes’ score by John Lanchbery, who produced the music for ABT, while serving as the principal conductor for The Royal Ballet.

Lanchbery’s effect should not be underestimated. Just as in his flexing of Ferdinand Hérold’s score for La Fille mal Gardée, Lanchbery accentuated a carefree, bucolic idyll in music that is always warm, even when we are in the potentially sinister workroom of Dr Coppélius. The romantic charm of this pastoral imagery flowed from the Liceu’s symphonic orchestra, under the direction of Martín García.

Ariele Gomes (Swanilda) © Santiago Barreiro
Ariele Gomes (Swanilda)
© Santiago Barreiro
Discovering new South American ballerinas has become an exciting annual pastime and this performance showcased Ariele Gomes, a 22-year-old Brazilian dancer who has been with the company in Montevideo for five years. Her portrayal of Swanilda, brought just the right balance of romantic sweetness and feisty ebullience, which suggests that Lise (La Fille mal Gardée) should be another eye-catching role for Gomes. This young Brazilian has already mastered the marvellous illusion of effortless technique, managed with a surprising stamina for a dancer still so young; and she is surely another South American ballerina deserving wider international acclaim.

Carefree, roguish charm came in the form of Ciro Tamayo’s presentation of Franz, Swanilda’s sweetheart with the roving eye that sets this lightweight narrative in motion when he spots Coppélia (in reality, of course, an automotive doll made by Dr Coppélius) “reading” her book on the balcony overlooking the town square. This Andalusian dancer from Malaga was plucked from a ballet competition in Barcelona (where Bocca was a judge) and – at 22 – is already the lead male soloist at BNS. It’s easy to see why: tall, handsome, with a coltish, soaring jump and that unteachable insouciance that marks the confidence of great dancers. He has some way to go but the right ingredients are already in place.

The touring sets were suitably evocative albeit rather rickety. I feared for Fátima Quaglia, as Coppélia – surely the most thankless title role in the whole ballet repertoire – sitting calmly on the balcony, as the Coppélius house wobbled. However, the set’s shakiness certainly did not transfer to the excellent dancers of BNS who were uniformly well-drilled to a high level of performance quality. As Coppélius, Daniel Galarraga was a suitably grumpy and eccentric inventor; and I particularly enjoyed the solo by Paula Penachio (as Aurora in the final act) and the mazurca duet by Nicolasa Manzo and Lucas Erni.                  

It was a delight to catch a rare glimpse of Ballet Nacional Sodre. The 2,300 seats of the Liceu were largely all occupied over the course of these six performances, which suggests – happily – that there may be good commercial incentive for this excellent company to return to Europe in the near future.