Review: English National Ballet - My First Ballet: Coppélia - Peacock Theatre

Performance: 8 - 19 April 2014
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Wednesday 23 April 2014

'My First Coppélia' Olivia Lindon as Swanilda & Archie Sullivan as Franz Photo: John Ross

Coppélia is just the kind of story ballet that could be sharply updated and made relevant for those new to the medium. Disappointingly none of that happens in this production by English National Ballet who in partnership with the English National Ballet School, presented it at the Peacock Theatre (and on tour) in a version for young audiences. Nevertheless, Associate Artist George Williamson’s choreography itself, pluckily executed by second year students of the ENBS, shone through the somewhat insipid production elements. The set looked to be made from cardboard cut-outs and everything, from props to costumes looked like spruced up second hand stuff. Other than the requisite tutus, there wasn’t an interesting point to be found in the entire design presentation, which doesn’t seem a very respectful way to introduce the Ballet to its future patrons.

I was not as annoyed as others by the voiceover narration provided throughout by Daniel Kraus as Dr Coppélius; he set the scenes and spoke out loud the usually silent symbolic language of gesture that is the coded storytelling language of the Ballet. This didactic device was the main thing that made this a ‘First Ballet’ and it was helpful to a point, but went on way too long. The kids caught on quick enough, so it could have been phased out. By the end Dr Coppélius was giving such a thorough blow-by-blow of events that were clearly happening right in front of us, that he started to sound like a sports commentator at a boxing match.

The story is of a young couple in a village, engaged to be married, into the midst of whose romance enter the elderly inventor Dr Coppélius, and his beautiful automaton. Thinking she’s ‘real’, the boy Franz swoons over the mechanical maiden Coppélia, much to the consternation of Franz’s main squeeze Swanilda. Swanilda then orchestrates an en-pointe girl gang break in on Dr Coppélius’ workshop, discovering for herself that his ‘daughter’ is a clockwork fabrication. She then assumes the identity of the she-robot in order to win back her man.

First staged in 1870, Coppélia is a tale with quite modern themes: the convincing illusion of technology as ‘real’, the idealisation of the artificial being and this technological ‘monster’s’ virtual insinuation into the lives of humans; the exposure as villain, fraud or buffoon, the sinister figure of the god-playing tinker whose imitations and inventions of life get out of hand: Dr Coppélius-as-Dr Frankenstein. With stuff like this simmering barely below the surface of the narrative, it surprises me that a choreographer, especially one as young as George Williamson, could resist a more thoughtful rendering of the classic – but maybe that wasn’t his choice to make. Nevertheless, his choreography is a brisk and thrilling update of the original moves. His recent Firebird, which was part of ENB’s forward-thinking Lest We Forget programme at the Barbican, showed a similar virtuosity with staging, swiftly moving shapes and evocative floor patterns.

The student dancers, led by Olivia Lindon as Swanilda and Archie Sullivan as Franz, were so clearly thrilled at taking the stage that their commitment and broad smiles were infectious. It was their enthusiasm, along with the attendant technical prowess, precisely channelled energy and grace of the Ballet form itself that held the attention of the youngsters. When Swanilda first entered the stage en point in an annunciating arabesque, there was an audible hush amongst many of the little ones who stared in reverent awe. My little boy leaned over to enquire “How can she turn round and round like that on her tippy toes?” then answering his own question: “I know! Practice.”

My First Ballet: Coppélia is touring the UK until the end of May. Venues and dates:

Photos: John Ross

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College.

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