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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Coppelia'

by David Mead

June 14, 2011 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

What a wonderful evening! It’s all part of the English tradition of course, but Birmingham Royal Ballet has always been rather good at those full-length story ballets packed with demi-character roles, and in Peter Wright’s production of “Coppélia” they show just why.

It goes beyond simply dancing. Technique is hugely important but to really work ballets like “Coppélia” need to make us believe, at least for a while. For that you need outstanding dancer-actors and in Elisha Willis, Matthew Lawrence and David Morse we certainly got them.

Willis’ sparkled all evening. Her acting seems to have really blossomed recently and she was delightful as the spirited but occasionally petulant Swanhilda, a girl with a hint of temper, but also demure and surely every male villager’s dream sweetheart. She switched effortlessly between dance and acting, between being the adoring girlfriend and stomping off in a huff, slamming the cottage door behind her, at Franz’s latest albeit innocent indiscretion with another girl.

Matthew Lawrence was totally at ease as a rather dashing Franz. Although dim-witted enough to be taken in by a life size doll, he came over as more carefree than stupid. This is a guy who does everything on impulse, and while it doesn’t take much to get him to flirt with the other girls, he always left everyone in no doubt that his love for Swanhilda was never far away. Mind you, should Swanhilda have ever decided she really didn’t want him I suspect most of the women in the audience would have been queuing up to take her place.

The couple were perfectly at ease with each other in the dance too. Their pas de deux looked effortless. Willis has a nice line and showed plenty of the neat quick footwork she is so good at, while Lawrence’s lifts and big jumps were all as strong and as solid as one of the ancient trees that overshadowed the village.

Although Dr. Coppélius is often portrayed entirely as a comic figure the ballet always works better when the character is rather more layered. “Coppélia” is loosely based on parts of Hoffmann’s short story “Der Sandmann”, who would steal the eyes of children who wouldn't go to bed and feed them to his own children who lived in the moon. In that story, Coppélius is a mysterious night-time visitor who carried out strange alchemical experiments and who came to be associated with the Sandman. It’s also easy to see associations with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and while there is nothing quite so scary in the ballet, Wright does hint at the character’s darker side, making him mysterious and as enigmatic as Drosselmeyer in his “Nutcracker”, while throwing in an element of pathos for good measure. It’s a difficult mix to get right, but David Morse brought it all out wonderfully, touching the nerve in just the right places, not least in the unexpected ending when his doll really does come to life. Or does she? Dream or reality? You choose.

There’s more than a hint of darkness about Peter Farmer’s sets too, especially in Act I. His use of deep blue and green in his colour palette and the setting of the village on the banks of a moonlit, quite forbidding looking lake immediately cloaks the proceedings in an air of mystery and magic. It’s a place where you just know fantasy and reality are going to collide.

Although the leads took the plaudits, the rest of the ensemble deserves mention too. The whole company was on exceptional form with the ensemble dances all right on the button. One of the highlights of Act III, and recognised as such by the audience, was the Call to Arms, the boys dance led by Mathias Dingman who dashed off an excellent series of pirouettes in second.

The whole company made the ballet seem fresh and full of energy. This “Coppélia” is a thoroughly entertaining show that I guarantee will send you home happy.

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