Coppélia holds a special place in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. It was one of the first ballets performed by the Company in its inaugural 1962 season. In 1979, Dame Peggy van Praagh collaborated with theatre director George Ogilvie and designer Kristian Fredrikson to create a beautiful new version.
Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in Coppélia. Photograph © Daniel Boud
Van Praagh’s production has been seen many times over the years, most recently in 2016 when the lovingly revived ballet was performed in Melbourne and Sydney. Now it is taking to the big screen thanks to a partnership between the Australian Ballet and CinemaLive. Opening this weekend (April 29 & 30), Coppélia will be shown for a limited time at cinemas across Australia.
The cinema event features a performance filmed live at the Sydney Opera House last December with AB principals Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo starring as village sweethearts Swanilda and Franz.
At the start of the film, the camera sweeps over Sydney Harbour, down to the Opera House forecourt where the casually dressed Kondo and Guo welcome viewers and then head for the dressing room to prepare for the performance.
Glimpses into the pit where guest conductor Barry Wordsworth leads the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, and a shot of the audience taking their seats after an interval add to the atmosphere of the live performance.
Ako Kondo as the doll with Andrew Killian as Dr Coppelius. Photograph © Kate Longley
Coppélia was originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870 to Léo Delibes’ delightful, melodic score. It was later revised by Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti. Working with Ogilvie and Fredrikson, Van Praagh based her production on Petipa’s version and added some new choreography of her own.
The comic ballet begins in a village square at harvest time. Larky village boy Franz becomes infatuated with a beautiful girl sitting on the balcony of the house of mysterious toymaker and sorcerer Dr Coppelius – much to the indignation of his jealous sweetheart Swanilda.
When Dr Coppelius goes out, Swanilda and her friends steal into his workshop where they find lots of life-sized toys and discover that the beautiful girl is, in fact, a mechanical doll. Meanwhile, Franz climbs through the workshop window. Dr Coppelius returns and captures Franz, tying him to a wheel in an attempt to drain his life-force and channel it into the doll. Swanilda disguises herself as the doll and after many high jinx rescues Franz. The ballet ends with some joyous village dancing and the marriage of a number of young couples including Swanilda and Franz.
There are dark elements in the tale, which Van Praagh and Ogilvie emphasised: the way the village boys intimate and jostle the reclusive Dr Coppelius, the magician’s willingness to steal Franz’s soul, and Coppelius’s desolation when he holds the broken doll after discovering that she hasn’t come to life at all – to Swanilda’s remorse. Apparently, these undercurrents were darker when the production was first seen. Here they are merely passing shadows in a light-hearted, sunny ballet.
The gorgeous design by the late Fredrikson is one of the delights of the production. It begins in a picturesque village with the villagers costumed in folksy outfits in a range of autumnal hues – browns and russets for the men, soft oranges, apricots and creams for the women.
As the curtain rises on Dr Coppelius’s workshop in Act Two, Doctor Who’s Tardis comes to mind, such is the spaciousness of the room, given the tiny façade we have seen in Act One. Here is an altogether different, magical world with vibrantly coloured, life-sized toys including monkeys with cymbals, a jack-in-the-box and a floppy rag doll. Occult symbols, including eyes, are embedded throughout the set, props and sparkly costumes. Act Three, set outside the village church, gleams with bright turquoise costumes, and white and gold for the final wedding scene.
Chengwu Guo. Photograph © Kate Longley
Kondo and Guo both have a stunning technique, while also capturing the spirited nature of their characters and the breezy fun of the ballet. Kondo has a sparky energy as Swanilda and her razor-sharp pointe work is exquisite. She is completely charming in the most famous scene when Swanilda pretends to be the doll, dancing with stiff, mechanical, bobbing movements initially, which gradually become more fluid and graceful as she is supposedly brought to life.
Guo exudes a cheeky, laddish swagger as Franz and thrills with his exuberant leaps, stunning elevation, precise landings and whirling turns. What’s more, he is a sensitive partner and has a lovely chemistry with Kondo (which is hardly surprising since they are engaged to each other). Their final, tender pas de deux is divine.
Andrew Killian gives a strong dramatic performance as Dr Coppelius, creating an eccentric, slightly crazed character rather than an evil villain. The supporting cast and the corps de ballet all turn in precisely danced, lively performances, while the orchestra gives a vibrant account of the uplifting score under Wordsworth’s baton.
Camera close-ups allow us to savour the dancing, and heighten the drama by capturing the expressions on the faces of the dancers and picking out little pieces of drama happening at different moments around the stage. The close-ups also show us the detailing (embroidery, symbols and sparkles) on Fredrikson’s gorgeous costuming. During the intermission, there are interviews with AB Artistic Director David McAllister and Ogilvie, who is now in his 80s but returned to the company to work with the dancers in the lead up to the 2016 openings in both Melbourne and Sydney. These give an insight into the creation of the work, enhanced by photographs of dancers performing in the production in the past. There are also interviews with Kondo and Guo and some footage from the rehearsal room.
All in all, it’s a rewarding way to experience the ballet for the first time if you’ve never seen it before, or to experience it afresh if you know it well.