Brisbane Lions help Queensland Ballet take Delibes’ classic into a whole new league.

Playhouse, QPAC

May 3, 2014

The Queensland Ballet have created a wonderful experience for the whole family with their new adaptation of Coppélia. With interactive storytelling prior to the performance and Q&A sessions with the dancers after selected shows, Coppélia should captivate audiences of all ages.

The ballet follows two bickering young lovers living in a small village. Swanhilda catches her sweetheart Franz blowing kisses to the doctor’s daughter, the mysterious and beautiful Coppélia. She is outraged, though neither she nor Franz realise that Coppélia is actually a lifelike doll. When the sweethearts sneak into the doctor’s house one night, they discover that all is not as it seems.

Choreographer Greg Horsman has revitalised this classic with fresh choreography and a brand new setting. Initially set in a Polish village, Horsman’s adaptation takes place in Hahndorf, a German settlement in South Australia in the nineteenth century. A distinct Australian flavour runs through the entire piece.

Hugh Colman’s set design was markedly Australian, incorporating tall white gum trees, corrugated iron roofing and rusted water towers. A large, warbling magpie sat proudly on Coppélia’s balcony and the silhouette of a windmill was visible behind the town. Lighting designer Jon Buswell created a transfixing sunset that softly faded to night as the villagers danced to the orchestra’s flawless performance of Delibes’ cheerful score.

A highlight of the performance was the rousing allegro by male corps dancers in Australian Football League garb. The choreography was strong, masculine and modern, and dancers in this section were briefly coached by the Brisbane Lions AFL team in order to learn the correct ball handling skills.

The most significant change that Horsman has made to the ballet is his interpretation of the character of Doctor Coppélius. In the original production the Doctor is portrayed as ‘mad scientist’, trying to bring a doll to life with no explicit motivation. Horsman has taken this previously directionless character and injected him with new purpose – to recreate his young daughter, who died on the long sea voyage to Australia. Paul Boyd gave a moving and dynamic performance as Coppélius, showing an intimate knowledge of character in his transformation from grief-ravaged father, to mad inventor, and back again.

Innovative as it was engaging, Coppélia employed modern technologies to add extra elements to its storytelling. A short, silent animation, specifically created for the ballet by PixelFrame, was projected onto the stage as a prologue, showing the Doctor on his voyage and the death of his beloved daughter. Later in the piece, robotics were cleverly combined with spirited choreograhy to bring Doctor Coppélius’ workshop to life.

Huang Junshuang performed the role of Franz with flair and charm, and Clare Morehen gave a strong performance as his sweetheart Swanhilda. Although both dancers were obviously competent soloists in their own right, their partner work was strangely lacklustre and their onstage chemistry appeared forced. This contrast was particularly noticeable in the grand pas de deux in Act 3.

Lina Kim as Liesel Kluge, the pastor’s daughter, and Eleanor Freeman as Swanhilda’s friend Mary McTaggart were standout performances from the corps. Indeed, Freeman threatened to outshine Morehen’s Swanhilda more than once with her excellent extension and elevation, as well as her consistent and lovable character. The Polish mazurka performed by all dancers was impressive, but overall the corps often lacked synchronicity.

Any minor technical mistakes, however, were entirely overshadowed by the humour and high entertainment value of the performance overall. The Queensland Ballet has breathed new life into Coppélia with the successful fusion of new elements and the use of a more familiar setting, creating a joyful and stirring performance tailored perfectly to their Australian audiences.

The Queensland Ballet perform Coppélia at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre from April 24 – May 10.