Fantasy, fun and footy in Aussie Coppelia

20 September 2021

With the first ever WA-based AFL Grand Final almost upon us, the timing couldn’t be better for a ballet that references the much-loved game. But that’s not the only reason West Australian Ballet’s Coppelia is a people pleaser, writes Nina Levy.

Coppélia, West Australian Ballet ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 18 September 2021 ·

As choreographer Greg Horsman observes in his program notes for West Australian Ballet’s production of his take on Coppélia, it is the “happiest” of the classical ballets.

So the poignancy of the opening strains of Delibes’ score sits at odds with what follows.

Choreographed in 1870 by Arthur Saint-Léon to Delibes’ aforementioned score, traditional versions of the light-hearted ballet Coppélia are set in a pre-industrial middle European village, and tell the story of an eccentric toymaker, Dr Coppélius, who creates a mechanical doll, Coppélia.

Looking life-like on Dr Coppélius’s balcony, Coppélia captures the attention of young villager Franz. When Franz’s girlfriend, Swanilda realises that his eye is wandering, she becomes jealous… and mayhem unfolds.

Created as a co-production for Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet in 2014, and directed here by Aurélien Scannella, Horsman’s Coppélia retains much of the original plot, but includes some crucial tweaks. Most obviously, the action moves to late nineteenth century Hahndorf, a German settlement in South Australia.

Framed by gum trees, the washed-out hues of Hugh Colman’s sets and John Buswell’s lighting design evoke the sparse dryness of an Australian outback town, perfectly capturing the expansive clarity of the desert sky.

The genius touch? A footy team, the Hahndorf Magpies.

But that’s not the only element that adds relevance to a contemporary Australian audience. Those aforementioned poignant undertones in the score’s prologue are matched by Colman’s series of sepia-toned animated stills, in which we learn that Dr Coppélius is a German migrant who lost his small daughter, Coppélia, en route to Australia.

This backstory adds nuance to the character of Dr Coppélius. Formerly a figure of mirth and disdain, he now evokes empathy too, at times an uncomfortable but more realistic mix. In Saturday night’s casting, Christian Luck gave a moving and sensitive portrayal of Dr Coppélius, holding the simultaneous humour and pathos of his character with practised ease.

In the roles of Swanilda and Franz respectively, Carina Roberts and Oscar Valdes proved themselves, once again, consummate entertainers, combining charismatic comedy with assured technique. Roberts’ arabesque lines were long and lithe, and her temps levé sur la pointe impressed, while Valdes pleased with his trademark powerful and elegant grande allegro, and his superbly controlled pirouettes.

They were ably supported by Glenda Garcia Gomez and Juan Carlos Osma, who played their friends Mary and Henry, Osma capturing the nonchalant confidence of a footy captain and Gomez a gregarious (if strangely be-wigged) Mary.

A favourite scene sees Swanilda and her friends exploring Dr Coppélius’s workshop which is kookily decorated with mannequin limbs and torsos, some hilariously animated (by Brent Carson, Keigo Muto and Ruben Flynn-Kann). Notable throughout for her endearingly slapstick performance as the bespectacled Liesl, Nikki Blain shone especially brightly in this scene.

With the first ever WA AFL Grand Final just a week away (touch wood), it’s no surprise that the footy scene was an audience favourite. The Mazurka makes for a delightfully comical musical accompaniment; the somewhat awkward transformation of handballs and marks into balletic form only adding to the humour. I maintain my observation however (made when WAB last presented this ballet in 2015), that the scene doesn’t maximise the comic potential of Aussie Rules.

I also haven’t changed my mind about the length of the three-act work – both Act I’s post-footy celebrations and Swanilda’s encounter with Dr Coppélius in Act II feel unnecessarily long – or about the simplistic ending (why would Swanilda so readily forgive Franz’s wandering eye?).

Perhaps it’s overlong for the cast too; a few small hiccups in the third and final act suggested signs of fatigue.

These were minor, however; the performance felt polished on the whole. And after the absence of live music in last season’s Dracula, it was more pleasurable than ever to hear the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under the expert baton of Jessica Gethin.

This production of Horsman’s Coppelia bubbles with joy and laughter, its tinge of sadness enriching a storyline that might otherwise feel bland.

Coppelia continues at His Majesty’s Theatre until 25 September.

Pictured top is Oscar Valdes, as Henry, and the dancers of West Australian Ballet in ‘Coppelia’. Please note photographs supplied by West Australian Ballet are of a different cast to the one reviewed. Photo by Bradbury Photography

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Nina was co-editor of Dance Australia magazine from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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