This is not a story about a prince or princess; there are no fairies, no spells, no swans. And yet it is an entirely enchanting story told by the Birmingham Royal Ballet. For twenty years now, Sir Peter Wrights Coppélia has been granting a glimpse of rural idyll, introduced by chorale-like, soft horns and captivatingly shining strings of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Set in an Eastern European village, the action is clear-cut, the protagonists but ordinary people with ever so human traits, which contributes greatly to the ballet's charm - and its demands.

© Andrew Ross
© Andrew Ross

The relatively simple setting and the nature of the drama both require high levels of artistry, in dancing as well as acting, and Folklore-inspired character dances and mazurkas are supported by great gestures of pantomime. Arancha Baselga and Mathias Dingman exceeded my expectations in this regard and epitomised the young lovers - the innocent, open-hearted Swanilda who broke into the most adorable sulks as she found her fiance, the care-free Franz with the roving eye, making advances on the ever-motionless Coppélia on her balcony, and who was (almost) just as quick to forgive him.

They mastered the challenge of character interpretation with ease and showed some great acting. So did Valentin Olovyannikov, whose Dr Coppélius didn't have the slight air of threat you might expect of a man who has been practising his mystic powers for years. His pride in and concern for his dolls were almost tangible, as was his vulnerability, and he seemed more like an eccentric clockmaker of the absent-minded professor type than a sorcerer, but all the more loveable for that.

He continuously provided comic moments, whether he made fun of Franz, deceived by Coppélia's beauty, whether he grabbed him by the ear after he had entered the workshop through the window and sent him hopping around the room with clearly audible claps on the intruder's behind, or whether he was stabbed under the arm old theatre style by Swanilda/Coppélia, and, finally, as the sword dropped with a shrug of his shoulders.

The role of Coppélius is primarily a character role, which doesn't involve formal dancing. But Olovyannikov's brilliant acting turns into a dance as he shuffles about his workshop, occasionally parodying the other dancers, to further amusement of the audience, while Dingman extended his portrayal of the exuberant youth in his dancing, displaying great manly gestures in the presence of Swanilda. While the choreography doesn't demand expansive tricks and high jumps, his were exact, clean and delightful, radiating juvenile strength and joy.

Arancha Baselga's natural performance was just as eye-catching. As quick as Swanilda's mood changes are her steps, almost darting. But the swift comic action occasionally slows down and allows for such heartfelt moments as the Ballade de l'Épi. To the touching melody of the violin, she showed real doubt and anguish at the thought (and apparent proof) that Franz doesn't love her, shaking the ear of wheat with increasing despair. It is assumed that it was Enrico Cecchetti who, in addition to the interpretative challenge, also introduced to Petipa's original choreography some of the more spectacular moments when he made his revisions in 1884. Baselga tackled those with accuracy, including the fouettés of the third act, and always with her Swanilda's typical natural, innocent grace.

© Andrew Ross
© Andrew Ross

The corps also distinguished itself, with persuasive acting, particularly from Swanilda's friends, and all made good use of Act III's festivities to demonstrate their artistry. While Swanilda's friends could have been a little more in sync at times, especially in the beginning, the Call to Arms in particular allowed the male dancers to show their full potential with tirelessly powerful jumps, and great ballon!

Now combine all this with Léo Delibes' rousing, folky score that not only provides suitable music for the big village scenes, particularly the glorious waltz, but also some exquisite writing with piccolo and glockenspiel, creating a playful, slightly magic atmosphere for Coppelius' dolls coming to life. Together, the colourful music, expressive acting and excellent dancing made for a delightful afternoon that only leaves one question: "Why didn't I see this earlier?"

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