The family tree of dancing dolls from de Valois de Ashton to van Praagh

With news that the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, Liam Scarlett, is working on a new production of Swan Lake, I’ve been thinking about the longevity or brevity of productions.

The Royal Ballet has retained Sir Anthony Dowell’s Swan Lake for 28 years.

That might seem like a very long time but the company’s Coppelia goes back much further. The production by Ninette de Valois was first performed in 1954.

Fille mal Gardee, choreographed by Frederick Ashton, is another stayer, premiering in 1960. The ballet is loved so much by the English audience that it’s almost impossible to think of another production making its way into the Royal’s repertoire.

The Royal Ballet’s Coppelia and Fille were designed by Osbert Lancaster, an Englishman, best known for his witty cartoons published in the Daily Express for 40 years.

Fille is also one of the stayers in the Australian Ballet repertoire.

Very few ballets that entered company’s repertoire in its first decade, the 1960s, are still performed on a fairly regular basis.

Apart from Fille, (1967), I can think of only three others, Ballet Imperial, The Dream and Les Sylphides.

As for completely new productions of classical ballets in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire, the Tchaikovsky trio leads the field with four full length interpretations of Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

Next in line is Cinderella, with three productions, then Giselle, Romeo & Juliet, Raymonda and Coppelia, with two productions each.

Peggy van Praagh, the first artistic director of the Australian Ballet brought Coppelia to the company in its first year, 1962.

Her 1979 production in which she collaborated with George Ogilvie and Kristian Fredrickson is still regularly programmed.

Fredrickson’s costume designs for this Coppelia are among the most beautiful and flattering he ever created.

Osbert Lancaster’s designs for Coppelia are not as appealing, but they have their own sweetly nostalgic look, as do his designs for Fille.

Frederick Ashton, whose country home was in Suffolk, based Fille on a French story but, as his biographer Julie Kavanagh wrote, “Ashton naturalised it by drawing on his own Suffolk surroundings as the setting.

“The ballet’s atmospheric inspiration is derived from a series of nineteenth century English rural prints which he lent to his designer…and later hung in maple frames on his bedroom wall”.

One of the prints is titled “Madame Auriol as Columbine”. I’ve not been able to find an image of that print although it might refer to a quaint portrait of a 19th century English actress, Francesca Auriol, who often portrayed the character, Columbine, on stage.

She was one of many performers whose small portraits in their best-known roles were created for the 19th century toy theatre trade.

The portraits were, and are, collectors’ items but were also used as two dimensional puppets in toy theatres.

After looking at many mini portraits, such as “Madame Auriol as Columbine”, I think it’s possible that Lancaster based his designs for the doll costumes in Coppelia on the toy theatre portraits.

These portraits can be found in the collections of several libraries or museums, among them the New York Public Library, where I found more than 200 such portraits.

Some of them look similar to Lancaster’s Scottish Doll, Turkish Doll and Crusader Doll, all of which were part of Dr Coppelius’ toy workroom in de Valois’ Coppelia.

I like to think that Lancaster’s doll costumes for Coppelia led him back to the toy theatre portraits when he designed the costumes for Fille.

The dress worn by Madame Auriole as Columbine does look a little like the puff sleeved and full skirted dresses worn by Lise, the heroine of Fille.

The appeal of both Coppelia and Fille seems everlasting.

The Royal Ballet will open its autumn season this year with Fille while the Australian Ballet’s Coppelia will be performed in Melbourne next September and in Sydney in December.

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The Scottish Doll, Coppelia, Osbert Lancaster

Dr Coppelius, Coppelia, Osbert Lancaster

Crusader Doll, Coppelia, Osbert Lancaster

Mr T.P. Cooke as Kera Khan

Mr Macready, as Wallace (the Hero of Scotland)

Maria Stanhope (née Foote), Countess of Harrington, as Moggy McGilpin

Madame Auriole as Columbine

Francesca Auriole lithograph

Turkish Doll, Coppelia, Osbert Lancaster

Vadim Muntagirov, Laura Morera and Paul Kay in La Fille mal gardée, photo © ROH, Tristram Kenton