Coppelia is based on a story by a German (E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman), was first turned into a ballet by Frenchmen (the music is by Delibes) and staged in Paris with an Italian ballerina, and was then revived and made popular by Russians. This production has choreography by another Frenchman, Roland Petit, and has been brought to London by Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. The Stanislavsky is a more junior company than either the Mikhailovsky or the Bolshoi, who also have London tours in 2013, but it is one of the more exciting companies in Russia today; their dramatic heritage and the stellar international career of their current Artistic Director Igor Zelensky have helped them to bring the work of several major European choreographers to Russia for the first time, including Nacho Duato, Jiří Kylián, Jorma Elo and Kenneth MacMillan. The company’s name might also be familiar to London audiences as the unexpected new home of Sergei Polunin, the stunningly talented Royal Ballet principal who walked out in 2011. Polunin could have had his pick of the world’s major companies, but opted for Moscow’s “second” company (after the Bolshoi) and the mentorship of Zelensky, who has helped him settle down and nurture his talent. Polunin’s turn as Prince Rudolf in MacMillan’s Mayerling earlier this year was apparently electric; the ballet event of the year in Moscow.

Sergei Polunin and Kristina Shapran in Coppélia © E. Fetisova
Sergei Polunin and Kristina Shapran in Coppélia
© E. Fetisova

Polunin was dancing Franz, the male lead, on the Stanislavsky’s first night at the Coliseum, making the performance a hot ticket for anyone who wanted to see the golden boy in his new company context. It was no surprise to see the Stanislavsky making the most of its asset – the curtain went up on Sergei standing alone, meeting the audience’s eye with a lopsided, heart-throb grin as if to say “I’m back. What of it?” before swaggering downstage, knocking out a couple of absolutely stunning cabrioles (a jump beating the legs together in the air behind), and sauntering off again. Every subsequent appearance had the same confidence, the jumps got bigger and better, and his comic dancing in particular was spot-on – darting around the stage teasing the girls, annoying the men, winding up his flirty girlfriend Swanhilda, and imitating old Dr Coppelius, he was fast, flashy, funny and footsure; an utterly charming hero.

Petit’s choreography is stylised in the extreme, highly reliant on mime, and in the crowd scenes largely based on folk dancing and music-hall gags (wagging bustles and kisses). This is a story, after all, about a life-sized doll, and the whole production has deliberately been given the feel of a toybox: all the men in the corps de ballet march around in identical military uniforms like tin soldiers, while the girls are either pink frilly music-box ballerinas or blue frilly china shepherdesses. They are, all of them, smiley and evidently anxious to please; they do a good job of the arch, flirty humour too, particularly the tutu’d girls who are Swanhilde’s friends. The crowd scenes in the first act crack along merrily; not always the most sophisticated choreography, but good fun.

The second act involves more acting and narrative, which relies largely on Anton Domashev’s playing of Dr Coppelius, the sad (or is it creepy?) ageing dandy/magician who is in love with Swanhilde and has made a doll that looks just like her (the Coppelia of the title). Domashev’s eye-rolling and wiggly French moustache raise laughs, but I found all the to-ing and fro-ing between him, Franz and Swanhilde a little tiresome after a while, not to mention confusing (the programme had no synopsis).

What a shame that Kristina Shapran, playing Swanhilde, was so nervous. You could see why she was cast in the part: she has a great repertoire of facial expressions, a superbly comic shoulder-shrug, and a lovely smile, and her long slender limbs are perfect for playing a doll. But her dancing was skittish in the extreme, which just about worked for the fast petit allegro sections, but led her to stumble out of turns. She and Polunin were sweet and sparky together when they were just dancing next to other, but in close pas de deux work they didn’t look matched or comfortable, with pirouettes in particular causing problems.

Nobody would dispute that Polunin is gold dust and worth seeing any time he’s here, the more so when he’s so obviously enjoying himself, as in this production. But whether you’d like the Stanislavsky Coppelia without him dancing depends on your taste in ballet: if you like comedy, mimic storytelling and jolly crowd scenes, go for it (and it’s short, over in two hours). But if you need refined classical technique, sophisticated choreography, or intellectual heft to get you going, maybe give this one a miss.

***11