Beneath the sunny façade, David McAllister discovers a tale of broken dreams.

David McAllister’s first principal role for the Australian Ballet was as the larky village boy Franz who becomes intrigued and then smitten with a mechanical doll in the classic family favourite Coppélia.McAllister, who is now Artistic Director of the AB, performed the part in Peggy van Praagh’s beautiful production, first staged in 1979, which the Company is currently reviving.

“I was lucky because both Steven [Heathcote, now the AB’s Ballet Master] and I learned it from Peggy in that last season that she directed in 1985, as did Fiona Tonkin [Artistic Associate and Principal Coach]. So we are all keeping the legacy of Peggy alive through our own experience,” says McAllister.

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in Coppélia, photo © Jeff Busby

Coppélia is a comic ballet originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon to the cheery music of Léo Delibes. Based on two Gothic stories by Prussian author ETA Hoffmann, The Sandman and The Doll, most modern-day productions are derived from the late 19th-century version revised by Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg.

In the ballet, an eccentric toymaker and magician called Dr Coppelius creates a life-size dancing doll that he dreams of bringing to life as his “daughter”. It is so lifelike that Franz becomes infatuated and sneaks into Coppelius’s house at night. Caught by the toymaker, who tries to drain his life force to animate his mechanical creation, Franz is saved by his sweetheart Swanilda, who has hidden herself by dressing in the doll’s clothes. In one of the ballet’s most famous sequences, Swanilda pretends to be the doll, dancing with stiff, automated, bobbing movements.

Dame Peggy, the founding Artistic Director of the AB, created her production using Petipa’s choreography as well as some of her own. George Ogilvie devised and directed, while the late Kristian Fredrikson designed. Last seen in 2010, Coppélia arrives in Sydney this month with lovingly restored sets and costumes after a season in Melbourne in September.

Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Chengwu Guo, photo © Jeff Busby

“It is the last of the Peggy van Praagh productions that we have in the active repertoire and it feels like the culmination of her legacy at the Ballet so it’s a great testimony to her vision and where she wanted the Company to be heading into the future,” says McAllister. “It’s still one of the most beautiful productions of Coppélia in the world, I believe.”

McAllister puts its success down to the “synergy” of its three creators. Fredrikson’s many credits include Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet and Turandot for Opera Australia. He also collaborated with Ogilvie on a 1987 television film called The Shiralee. Ogilvie, meanwhile, is a much-loved director who was Artistic Director of the South Australian Theatre Company from 1972 to 1976, and whose many credits include Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which he directed with George Miller.

“We had George come back and stage the Melbourne season and he will come in just before we open in Sydney,” says McAllister. “It was so sweet. He said, ‘You know, I think this is the best production I ever did.’ When you think of all the work he did through his career, it’s lovely he thinks this is one of his great gems.”

Though Coppélia is always thought of as a sunny ballet, and is a great crowd-pleaser, there are some dark shadows in the story, which this production emphasises. Coppelius is a slightly darker character than sometimes portrayed, and he is left distraught, cradling the broken doll. “Swanilda and Franz are actually not that nice [at first],” says McAllister. “It’s actually through the experience they have that Swanilda realises that what she’s done is quite mean. In the third act they emerge as much more thoughtful, mature adults, after being these annoying youths in the first two acts.” 

Of course, it all ends happily with a wedding. “I think it’s a great Christmas ballet,” says McAllister. “It is one of the great heritage productions but it has still got that magic and beauty that the kids love. It’s great when you see the kids come with their parents or grandparents and having that Christmas outing together. It’s quite a lovely ballet for that.”

The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia plays at the Sydney Opera House December 2-21