Coppelia: The win-win production imprinted in the Australian Ballet’s history

The collaboration of Peggy van Praagh, Kristian Fredrikson and George Ogilvie is one of the most successful in the Australian Ballet’s history, if not the most successful.

Their production of Coppelia (1979) stitches together van Praagh’s profound knowledge of the ballet over many years, Fredrikson’s unique artistry and imagination and conception of the story, and Ogilvie’s skills as a theatre producer.

Age hasn’t wearied the story of the doll, the alchemist – Dr Coppelius – the naughty couple, Swanilda and Franz, or Fredrikson’s beautiful set and costume designs.

Watching this Coppelia for the umpteenth time was as comfy as a doona in winter and as bright as a summer day by the sea with absolutely nothing to do but watch the scenery.

No need for interpretation for the rusted on ballet audience but any audience will include some who have never seen this ballet or any ballet before.

I sat near to one newcomer, at least I think he was, who guffawed throughout the entire ballet, amazed by every twist and turn of the narrative and execution of each tricky step, leap or turn by both the men and women.

His response was a reminder that for the Australian Ballet, Coppelia is a win-win production, appealing to all comers, including children and it’s unlikely that anyone in the audience is ever going to mutter in the interval “I don’t really like it”.

Delibes’ score, especially the exhilarating Mazurka and Hungarian Dance (czardas), is the heart and soul of the ballet with Fredrikson’s sublime colours of orange, blue, teal, white and gold threading their way through Acts I and III and with Dr Coppelius’s workshop in Act II a darker, stranger place where little lights shine like peeking eyes, half made dolls hang from the ceiling, and emerald coloured smoke erupts from behind the doctor’s magical wheel.

Coppelia tends to bring back memories and images of dancers who have played the principal roles in the past and for me the most vivid are Greg Horsman and David McAllister as Franz, especially in the Act I solo, Lisa Bolte as Prayer in Act III and Colin Peasley’s interpretation of Dr Coppelius as a vulnerable outsider who is not just teased by the local villagers but abused.

On opening night, Andrew Killian did not fully inhabit the difficult role of this vilified man who later shows his true colours as a frightening necromancer and then a heartbroken old man who realises he will never see his dream come true.

But then how could he? Killian is a vibrant, good looking young man and some ballet roles really do demand older, more mature artists who have danced as a principal or senior artist in the past and are able to bring depth and nuance into the character roles that are so important in narrative classical ballets.

(The same problems arise when companies without a roster of character dancers cast the roles of the Don in Don Quixote, Madge in La Sylphide, the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet and Giselle’s Mother to name a few.)

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, cast as Swanilda and Franz, sailed through the ballet’s solos with ease and charm, with Kondo showing the exactitude of her every step and Guo displaying his virtuoso leaps and multiple turns.

But when it came to the final Act III pas de deux, Guo seemed less confident with his partnering than he was in his solos.

In their variations as Dawn and Prayer, Dana Stephensen and Robyn Hendricks were both charming and technically impressive as they represented the beauty of a sunrise and the calmness of a community in repose.

Opening night of Coppelia on 2 December marked the 249th performance of the production by the Australian Ballet.

Hard to imagine there will ever be another one but if there is, there should be a legally binding rule that Fredrikson’s designs are only refurbished and never ever replaced.

The casting of the two principal roles for the remainder of the season is, I think, indicative of who might be promoted at the start of the new year.

Three principal women, Kondo, Amber Scott and Leanne Stojmenov and two men, Guo and Ty King-Wall have been cast in the leading roles.

The other dancers in these roles are Benedicte Bemet, Brett Chynoweth, Dimity Azoury, Joseph Chapman, Miwako Kubota and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson.

Kubota, a senior artist, is leaving the company at the end of the season but promotion looks likely for some or all of the others.

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