Australia and Coppelia, the boomerang ballet

Coppelia has a unique place in the history of dance in Australia even though the ballet has a multinational history.

Choreographed by a Frenchman [Arthur St Leon] in Paris and based on two tales of a German writer, [E T A Hoffmann], Coppelia was revived by another Frenchman [Marius Petipa] in Russia, and performed to great acclaim to a London audience by a Danish dancer who introduced the ballet to Australians.

The twists and turns of the trail begin in Paris in 187o with the premiere, at the Theatre Imperial de l’opera, of St Leon’s Coppelia.

The ballet found a new life and new popularity in England when Adeline Genée performed the role of Swanilda at the Empire Theatre on May 14, 19o6. Audiences adored the tiny ballerina. Born in Denmark [real name, Anina Kirstina Margarete Petra Jensen] she had lived mainly in England since the turn of the century.

It wasn’t the first time Coppelia had been staged in London. A production at the Empire in 1884 preceded the 19o6 production by Genée’s uncle, Alexander Genée.

Her biographer, Ivor Guest, wrote of Genée: “Of all the many parts she played, it was Swanilda which remained most deeply engraved in the memories of her admirers, and more than a quarter of a century later, in 1933, when Lopokova danced the role with the young Vic-Wells Ballet, people could be heard in the intervals saying wistfully ‘Ah, but you should have seen Genee!’”

The Australian promoters and producers, J C Williamson, brought her to Australia in 1913, billing Genée as ‘The World’s Greatest Dancer’.

JCW, or ‘The Firm’ as it was known, had signed a contract with Genée for a tour of Australia and New Zealand for a minimum of 20 weeks, with seven performances a week and payment of £400 a week.

She sailed into Sydney Harbour on the liner Makura, on 6 June, 1913 and was greeted by cameramen taking news footage of her walking on the deck, and by reporters eager to catch a glimpse and the possibility of an interview.

The Sydney Morning Herald published a two-column article on Genée on 9 June.

Headlined ‘A Famous Dancer’, the report by an unnamed reporter (no bylines in those days) described Genée as a “dainty little lady with a radiant smile and a rare charm of manner” who was cheered by a big crowd, then honoured at a supper at the city’s top restaurant, Paris House.

In the touring company, promoted as The Imperial Russian Ballet, Genée was partnered by Alexander Volinin.

The 16-week season in Australia (preceding the NZ tour) opened in Melbourne on 21 June 1913 with Coppelia. Genée danced the role of Swanilda, Volinin was Franz and Jan Zalewski was Dr Coppelius.

In Adelaide in July, she told a journalist at The Mail: “I am I should say, the most travelled dancer in the world. I have been in most of the European capitals, of course, but we do not regard that as travel. Altogether I have made five visits to America. The last time I went to San Francisco, for seven weeks, I lived on my own railway car. This used to be shunted into a siding at the station of the town where I was appearing. Then it would be coupled on to the train that was to take me to the next city. As far as one could be comfortable under such conditions I was. Altogether I have in the last six months travelled 32,000 miles — and that doesn’t count the distance I have danced, she she added laughingly”.

After she retired in 1917, she became the president of the London Association of Operatic Dancing, later known as the Royal Academy of Dancing. In 1931 she initiated an annual award for young dancers. First known as the Adeline Genée Gold Medal it became The Genée International Ballet Competition and is still held each year.

As for the boomerang, her name continued to be well known in the Australian dance community as Australians have particpated in many of the competitions and won many of the medals awarded. The competition was first held in Australia in 2oo2 and will be held there for the second time next year.

Coppelia returned to Australia in 1931, the same year as the first Adeline Genée Gold Medal was held. But it wasn’t Coppelia as Genee would have known it. As Edward Pask wrote in his history of Australian ballet, from 1835-194o, “a two-act production of Coppelia was presented by an organisation which had bravely christened itself the First Australian Ballet. An amateur company, it was directed by Louise Lightfoot and Mischa Burlakov”, both Sydney teachers. Just how they knew anything about St Leon’s choreography is a mystery, although they would have been familiar with Delibes’ score.

The third Ballets Russes company to tour Australia, the Original Ballet Russe, presented a two act production of the ballet in Sydney in 194o but the first professional Australian company to stage Coppelia was the Borovansky Ballet in 1946, with Edouard Borovansky himself playing the role of Dr Coppelius.

Coppelia retained its England-Australian connection when Peggy van Praagh, the English dancer and teacher, took the reins of the Borovansky Ballet in 196o, after Borovansky’s death.

Van Praagh knew the work very well as she had danced the leading role of Swanilda in the production of the Sadlers Wells Ballet in London, directed by Ninette de Valois.

De Valois herself had danced in London as Swanilda in 1933 and she created a new Coppelia in 1954, with designs by Osbert Lancaster.

In 196o, van Praagh’s first year with the Borovansky Ballet, she staged her own Coppelia with designs by Kenneth Rowell. The production was the last ballet to be performed by the Borovansky Ballet the following year and just one year later, it was performed in the opening season of the new Australian Ballet.

I have the programs of that inaugural season, among them the double bill of Les Rendezvous and Coppelia in 1962 when the guest artists were Sonia Arova as Swanilda and Eric Bruhn as Franz.

The program shows that Dr Coppelius was played by Algeranoff, The Burgomaster by Leon Kelloway, The Innkeeper, was Peter Condon and Swanilda’s friends were Barbara Chambers, Robyn Croft, Kathleen Geldard, Heather Macrae, Jan Melvin and Rosemary Mildner.

The Peasant Girls were Suzanne Musitz and Sandra Bingham and in Act 2, the future principal, Kelvin Coe, was the Chinese Doll.

When van Praagh returned to the artistic directorship in 1979, the Australian Ballet premiered a new Coppelia produced by George Ogilvie and designed by Kristian Fredrikson.

This production remains in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire and will return to Melbourne and Sydney next year.

I think Fredrikson’s costumes for Coppelia are the most intriguing ever designed for the ballet in any country where it’s been staged, among them Dr. Coppelius’s cloak, scattered with painted eyes, and an eerie, unfinished ragdoll who joins the collection of dolls in Act 2.

This collaboration of Van Praagh and Fredrikson is one of the most satisfying and successful in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire.

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Leanne Stojmenov as Swanilda, Coppelia, Australian Ballet, photo © Jim McFarlane

Giuseppina Bozzachi, the first Swanilda in Coppelia, 1870

Kenneth Rowell’s design for Coppelia, Borovansky Ballet, 1960

Adeline Genée as Swanilda in Coppelia