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Birmingham Royal Ballet


by David Mead

June 6, 2007 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

In some ways “Coppélia” is the perfect ballet.  After all, there’s a touch of pantomime, some rather more subtle humour, folk dance, classical ballet, an easy to follow story, and for the kids among us, some great dancing toys and dolls.  But perhaps what makes it complete is that it’s about real people; real people that have their darker side too.  Think about it.  Swanilda is usually seen as a happy, sunny girl in love with her fiancée Franz.  But how quickly jealousy comes to the surface when she mistakes the Coppélia doll for a real-life, kiss-blowing rival.  And what of Franz?  He may be in love, but how easily his head is turned, whether by the doll or by the gypsy in Act I.  Then there’s old Coppélius, eccentric and harmless, or something altogether more worrying?

What really makes Coppélia come to life are good artists.  And that means more than good dancing.  Nao Sakuma as Swanilda was the excellent neat, precise self we’ve come to expect, but it’s her all-round artistry that’s really at the fore and makes ballets like these truly work.  It’s not so much the traditional ballet mime or the shaking of her fist as Franz makes a big show of blowing kisses at the life-size Coppélia doll or dancing with the gypsy, it’s more the little looks, the visual asides.  That little glance or the “I forgive you” smile, the sorts of things ordinary people do and that we can relate to.

Chi Cao made for a competent and good-looking Franz.  You wanted to believe in him, you really did.  He danced and leapt and turned like we all know he can, but somehow there was something missing.  He really didn’t seem particularly eager for his girl or particularly impetuous in some of the other things he gets up to.  Where was the sparkle, that little glint in the eye?

Although Franz and Swanilda take the leads, perhaps the character with potentially the most depth in the ballet is the Dr. Coppélius himself.  Michael O’Hare gave us the eccentric inventor version with the mad professor look, but with just enough depth to make sure he didn’t descend into cartoon character territory.  He wasn’t sinister, just a proud old man who really believed in what he was doing and that he could make a doll come to life.  A case of self-delusion.  And again, who hasn’t been there?

The ballet has always suffered from a less than inspiring third act that is more an excuse for a series of enchainements than any real extension of the story, but this was where BRB produced the best ensemble dance.  As a whole, the company looked in good shape throughout, especially in the many symmetrical ensemble sections.  The highlight though was undoubtedly the “Call to Arms” where Kosuke Yamomoto gave us a series of turns and leaps that quite rightly got the loudest applause of the evening.

In most productions, Coppélius barely gets a mention in the final act, but Peter Wright had a stroke of genius when he decided to give us two happy endings and the leave final scene to the good doctor.  When everyone else is gone and old Coppélius is left with his doll, who can fail to feel for him when she really does come to life?  Or is the old man just having another dream?  But then that’s what a lot of ballet is about, isn’t it?

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