Coppélia is one of the more light-hearted of the full-length classical ballets. Based very loosely on Hoffmann’s more macabre short story Der Sandmann, the plot revolves around the tempestuous relationship of its protagonists, Swanilda and Franz; and the work of the inventor Dr Coppélius, who is both brilliant and barmy. The events of the first two acts are set into motion when Dr Coppélius leaves his latest creation, an extraordinarily lifelike doll called Coppélia, out on his balcony. His neighbours mistake her for a real person, and soon she gains the affections of the fickle Franz and the jealous dislike of his fiancée Swanilda. After breaking into the mad inventor’s house, our heroine discovers Coppélia’s secret and decides to make mischief by impersonating her and convincing Dr Coppélius that he has at last brought his creation to life, in the process reminding Franz that it is Swanilda that he loves rather than the doll.

Coppélia -Nao Sakuma as Swanilda and Chi Cao as Franz, © Roy Smiljanic
Coppélia -Nao Sakuma as Swanilda and Chi Cao as Franz,
© Roy Smiljanic

The third and final act shirks plot almost entirely in favour of a selection of celebratory dances, counteracting the large amount of mime and story-telling of the first two acts. Coppélia is fun and fairy-free; it features no royalty, swans or magical beings, and the dancing is (as far as ballet can be) down-to-earth, with a vocabulary rooted in the local folk dances of its Eastern European setting.

Both main characters are roguish and offer their performers the opportunity to dance playfully. Nao Sakuma as Swanilda and Chi Cao as Franz both take up this chance with relish, particularly Cao whose cheeky head-wiggles prove endearing. The supporting cast too give themselves wholeheartedly to the silliness. Sakuma’s part allows her to shift between two roles: Swanilda as herself with a mix of jaunty footwork and more traditionally elegant solos; and Swanilda impersonating Coppélia with her robotic motions and slapstick comedy as she toys with Dr Coppélius in his workshop.

This particular production was first performed in 1995 and features choreographic contributions and staging by Peter Wright alongside the older work of Petipa and Cecchetti. The production, designed by Peter Farmer, is beautiful: rich green foliage hangs from above to an oil-painted backdrop. The bright costumes stand out strongly against the deeper, darker set design.

At times the mime can be a little overbearing, and until the third act the dancing remains clean but packs very little punch. The fun of the first act loses some pace in the second, which, though containing the workshop scene with all its potential for mayhem, drags a little and falls slightly flat. The third act picks up again with impressive dances like the ‘Call to Arms’, danced by an all-male ensemble led splendidly by Tyrone Singleton. Cao as Franz delivers a solo with some dangerously off-balance moments but later redeems himself, performing with virtuosity and with the playful cockiness required of his character.

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