Coppélia is a million miles away from the other 19th century story ballets. There are no princesses, fairies or swan maidens, nor are there any dramatic scenes of heartbreak or deaths. Inspired by the stories of ETA Hoffmann it’s both comic and a little macabre. Set in a small Eastern European village, it tells of the mysterious inventor, Doctor Coppélius, and the young couple who become fascinated (he romantically, she jealously) by the girl who lives with him – who turns out to be a doll.
The principal dancers do a fine job in establishing the characters’ motives and personalities quickly. The choreography feels almost secondary in the first act: while Nao Sakuma’s lightness of feet in the very first scene – the famous Swanilda variation – shows her to be strong-headed, it’s her bouts of tantrums (complete with comical fist-shaking, huffing and puffing) at her fiancé’s wandering eyes that provoke the most laughter and, no doubt, recognition from the female members of the audience. Chi Cao is equally mischievous as Swanilda’s fiancé, Franz, blowing kisses at any women in his vicinity while sporting a cheeky smirk; his comic timing is excellent.
Another notable thing about Coppélia is the presence of Swanilda’s friends – it’s rare that the female protagonist has friends around her, with personalities of their own, who are neither cursed otherworldly creatures or peasant women. These friends are there to comfort the angry Swanilda in Act One and to relish her mischief in the second Act; the sequence in which the six friends follow Swanilda’s lead with a series of kicks and turns is a near-perfect combination of music and movement.
Swanilda is a demanding role – she is rarely off stage, and the middle act is essentially a showcase for the female lead to demonstrate her range – and Sakuma does not disappoint in the respect. As the doll, Coppélia, she proves capable of slapstick too. The Scottish doll variation is also a highlight: the steps combine the flex of Scottish steps with pointe work, all performed with incredible speed and fluidity; Sakuma’s strength as performer lies in the fact that, though her speed is dizzying, she never skips a beat and every step is crystal clear.
The production suffers somewhat in its final act and there’s a failure to sustain the piece’s momentum. Jenna Roberts, for all her dramatic talents, cannot bring the Prayer variation to life. Even the initial pas de deux between Swanilda and Franz is not an entirely comfortable one; the lifts and promenades jar somewhat, and the way in which Swanilda is hung upside down at the end is just bizarre.
But the delightful final sequences more than compensate. Swanilda and Franz’s coda gradually picks up in speed and virtuosity, and it’s a challenge that Sakuma and Cao take on with aplomb. Cao’s 45-degree tours en l’air are seriously flashy, while Sakuma almost never comes off pointe, jumping continuously with an ease that belies the skill necessary to make it look not just painless but elegant.
Coppélia is a difficult ballet to pull off, and as a piece it’s not without flaws, but Birmingham Royal Ballet make it work. The production is so well-danced and well-acted that one forgives it the occasional lull.
On a side note, it’s worth checking out the Pointe Blank project started by the company, in which UK artists are invited to create artwork based on productions in the BRB repertory. This year’s selection was Hobson’s Choice, which features in the first London programme, but last year’s Coppélia artwork is still available to view online. It’s a wonderful project that again demonstrates the company’s fresh approach.