Birmingham Royal Ballet's Coppélia is intoxicating
Sir Peter Wright's take on Saint-Léon’s classic ballet mixes elegance with roguish mischief
If ballets are to be believed, medieval life was about dances in village squares, balls, eccentric neighbours and the odd dose of tomfoolery thrown in. At least this is roughly the size of Coppélia’s slight but charming story, providing the framework for Arthur Saint-Léon’s ballet (in this production by Peter Wright, the choreography is a mixture of Wright’s along with Marius Petipa’s 1884 version and Enrico Cecchetti’s revisions).
Wizard-haired, bronze-cloaked toymaker, Dr Coppelius has built a doll that one day catches the eye of village cad, Franz. It’s a curious premise, ambiguous in whether it hints more at male idiocy or the idea that a woman’s appeal is hollow as porcelain.
This however is enough to rile his betrothed, Swanilda, who later that night, breaks into the doctor’s house to find the mysterious toy. Franz is hot on her heels but is caught by the doctor. Swanilda on the other hand manages to both evade capture and get her own back by impersonating the doll and running riot with Coppelius' other giant automatons.
It’s this earthy mischief that marks Coppélia out as folk rather than fairy tale, setting it apart from other ballets that call on their lead women to be winsome and passive. Elisha Willis as Swanilda is as convincing in her playfulness as in her en pointe elegance.
Equally, the pointwork is cut through with folk dance, particularly in the first act, where ensemble pieces allow the corps to show off their tight formations in heeled boots. The third act provides a context – like The Nutcracker’s Land of the Sweets – for traditional ballet to shine, and while there’s much to admire in fouettés and jetes, it's Franz (Joseph Caley) and Swanilda’s pas de deux that stands out for its fine tenderness, in contrast to the stiff grandeur of The Nutcracker’s counterpart.
Coupled with Peter Farmer’s design - wood-mushroom and moss-coloured sets and bright embroidered costumes – this Coppélia conjures up a world you long to step into: an intoxicating mix of classical poise and Germanic folklore.