Thoughts on Coppelia, The Royal Ballet

Words by Bengi-Sue Sirin.

As much as I love contemporary dance, I hold a special place in my heart for classical ballet. And at this time of year, the big companies pull out all the stops, each striving to out-dazzle the others as the most supple, splendid and sparkling fairy on the ballet universe Christmas tree.

This winter, both Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet are keeping it classic with their versions of ‘The Nutcracker,’ at the Royal Albert Hall and the London Coliseum respectively. Certainly, it has long been a festive staple; several of my non-dancey friends have seen it with family, and I am even going to see it again myself, just because I know how Christmassy it will make me feel (despite my cash-strapped policy of seeing many things once, rather than one thing many times).

Bearing this in mind, perhaps you can appreciate the risk taken by the Royal Ballet this year, whereby they have chosen ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Coppelia’ for the Christmas theatre crowds. Granted, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is unwaveringly popular, its Tchaikovsky score almost as well-known as his ‘Nutcracker’ music. But it is not by any means a seasonal ballet — there is no Christmas tree in sight.

And ‘Coppelia,’ perhaps the most obscure of the classical big-hitter ballets, hasn’t enjoyed a Royal Ballet revival for 14 years! Of course, they’re the Royal Ballet. They’re huge, doted on by the cultural elite. Most of the shows sell out regardless of their dancers, choreographers, or titles. But this unusual choice perhaps deters new dancegoers – those like my non-dancey friends who went as a family Christmas treat.

To some, (and I can totally see why!) its distance from popular culture and all things festive render it niche, unknown and therefore inaccessible. This is what I want to revise. ‘Coppelia’ is my favourite ballet, and I believe niche (in a good way), easy to follow, and totally accessible.

I don’t think the Royal Ballet’s current production is by any means perfect — the oft-omitted Third Act was, unfortunately, permitted, and the unconventional, fleet and fierce Melissa Hamilton would have brought heroine Swanilda to full feisty fruition. However, I want to make the case for its deserved place at the Christmas ballet table.

It’s dark.

Beneath the ‘romcom’ surface lurks a sinister story (think of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure). ‘Coppelia’ is based on two short stories written by 19th century German gothic horror writer, E. T. A. Hoffmann, ‘The Sandman’ and ‘The Doll.’ That’s the same ‘sandman’ who has since become mythologised as the dispenser of sand or ‘sleepy dust’ in children’s eyes at bedtime — and that the Chordettes harmonised about. Not entirely obscure!

If, like me, you revere dark folklore, you’ll love the wild Dr. Coppelius: maker of dolls, caster of spells, lurer of innocents. In his Scandinavian/Flemish village, Dr. Coppelius is regarded as a short-tempered, eccentric craftsman, growing more crazed and lonelier with age. Little do his neighbours know of the mini doll empire that lurks in his workroom… Intricate, human-sized puppets in humanlike postures are spread around the stage, portraying every sign of humanity but that flicker of animation caused by actual life.

The most lifelike of them all is the eponymous Coppelia; so feminine is her positioning, that Swanilda’s fiancée Franz takes her for a real (and very tempting) woman. When wound into motion, these dolls do indeed flicker with animation, but in such clockwork, marionette fashion that it is as disconcerting as it is comical. And the darkest element of all is Dr. Coppelius’ plan to enliven his beloved ‘daughter’-doll Coppelia by sacrificing the unconscious Franz to causes of sorcery and murder. All the while, ‘Coppelia’ maintains a level of light-heartedness which never fails to delight. It’s dark but enjoyably so — like reading the tales of Hoffmann inside a cosy living room.

It’s feminist.

In more ways than one. Firstly, its conception was born out of a dig at the ultra-idealistic era of Romanticism. The pursuit of ideals such as love, femininity and art, was at its peak in the mode of romantic ballet. ‘Coppelia,’ choreographed in 1870 for the Paris Opera company by Arthur Saint-Leon, is regarded as ‘a joke about Romanticism.’

The expectations of the era are crystallised in Coppelia, an embodiment of all the Romantic ideals, all the more lovely, feminine and artistic for her wooden silence. This idealism is unravelled by Swanilda’s pragmatic realism. Not one to stay quiet, she embarks on a mission to reveal the truth, and consequently liberate Franz from his Romantic reverie, returning him to reality with her, an actual living, breathing, boisterous woman. Good for Swanilda.

Secondly, the majority of the choreography is bestowed upon the female dancers. Franz aside, we hardly see any male bravado. Dr. Coppelius is a Principal Character Artist role, meaning he is more pantomimed than danced by an ex-heavyweight from the Royal Ballet (in this ‘Coppelia’ it’s the enigmatic Gary Avis doing the honours).

Swanilda’s female friends have much more stage-time than Franz’s rather hapless male buddies, and they make the most of it by injecting comedy and individualised personality that are worlds apart from the uniformity of a standard Romantic corps de ballet. As for Swanilda herself, she exudes her own willpower. Francesca Hayward, who danced the role on opening night, captures her character in the programme notes: ‘Swanilda is great. She has so much more backbone than the average classical heroine. If she were alive today, she’d be a lovely girl from up north, very loud but a bit of a romantic. And it’s so nice to play a girl with some control over her future. I always feel if she didn’t want to marry Franz, she wouldn’t.’

Act Two is magical.

As I said earlier, I could have done without the ‘cutesy’ wedding scene that constitutes Act Three — to use Lynsey Winship’s word. But I cannot stress enough how extraordinary Act Two is. Anybody with a predilection for the spooky, the sinister, the tongue-in-cheek, the uncanny — any fellow cynics of Romanticism — will adore the scene where Swanilda deceives Dr. Coppelius with guile, wit, and a little help from some wind-up dolls. I had been waiting fourteen years for those thirty minutes, I hope the next revival will soon come.

Images by Brian Cooper.