‘Coppélia’. The Australian Ballet (2010)

A Sydney tabloid recently described the Australian Ballet’s current production of é as ‘One for all the Betty Ballerinas’ and noted that it emphasised ‘sugary narrative and formal technique’. The review was spot on—unfortunately, I have to say. Coppélia can actually be quite a moving experience. It certainly should be more than it was at the performance I attended.

Most disastrous from a dramatic point of view was Act II. It seemed to me that Swanilda (Gina Brescianini), Franz (Ty King-Wall) and Dr Coppélius (Matthew Donnelly) were doing nothing more than going through the motions—and at what seemed like breakneck speed. Was the music too fast? Or was there just no understanding whatsoever of dramatic emphasis or the value of an occasional moment of stillness? Or both?

When the curtain went down on Dr Coppélius embracing a rag doll, there was no feeling that here was an old man whose dreams had been shattered—it needs a little pathos at this point. Swanilda looked back but briefly at the havoc she and her friends had caused. She may have placed her hand on her heart or made some other fleeting gesture (it was all over so quickly and without any sense of the dramatic that it is hard to remember). Franz just disappeared out the window after failing to get involved at any point in the unfolding events.

Act III was little better. By that stage Brescianini had tired badly and was not able to sustain her technique at the level required to dance the lead in a full length role. King-Wall had similar difficulties and his feet in particular started to look decidedly unballetic. And did anyone tell the reapers what a reaper does? Or even that they were meant to be reapers? They just smiled determinedly, and did the set steps.

It was a sad occasion for me and I’m afraid I began to long for ‘the good old days’ of the fairly recent past, for the Swanildas of, for example, Lisa Bolte and Miranda Coney, for the Franzs of Steven Heathcote and even David McAllister. Maybe it was a bad day? And it wasn’t the first cast. But the problems it seems to me go beyond those kinds of excuses.

Michelle Potter, 16 May 2010

25 thoughts on “‘Coppélia’. The Australian Ballet (2010)

  1. Oh dear, doesn’t sound too encouraging for the forthcoming Melbourne season. I wonder if George Ogilvie was invited to oversee the restaging. Very often important details for the drama and characterisations get overlooked when there is no input from an original member of the creative team. I remember what a jolt it was to see a revival of “Merry Widow” many years ago when Ronald Hynd came back to oversee things. Many, many details lost over the years were restored.

    I haven’t checked the full Sydney casting yet but I would have thought Donnelly not quite right for Coppelius. Michelle is very right about the curtain for Act 2. I seem to remember Frantz having to virtually push Swanhilda through the window and onto the ladder. She was most definitely upset at the effect their antics had had on Coppelius. And the final image of him cradling the rag doll was always most moving.

  2. I have had a look at the casting list for the Sydney Coppelia season. Running through the principals list and we find no Bell,Bull,Curran,Dunn,Martin,Rawlins or Rowe. From the Senior Artist list, no Jackson,Jones,Killian or Scott. The website does not list the two big solos, Prayer and Dawn, so perhaps some of the missing girls are doing them. Even allowing for injuries and baby breaks some of our biggest and brightest are not performing. Why programme a ballet if you feel a large number of your principals and senior artists are not suited to the two big leading roles ?

  3. I will be really interested in comments from Melbourne, especially on other castings.

    Re George Ogilivie’s input, the cast sheet states ‘Production devised and directed by George Ogilvie’ but whether that means this time or not is not clear. Donnelly’s Dr Coppelius didn’t work but I feel it was more because of a lack of dramaturgical care or coaching that could have given him some means of developing the character rather than an inherent lack of talent. Like all the other main characters he threw away so much in the first act as well as the second.

    I saw Reiko Hombo as Aurora and she certainly danced with technical precision. Natasha Kusen did Prayer and was adequate. The big stand out performer in my opinion was Dana Stephensen who led the Czardas with real flair.

  4. I am so hoping that Colin Peasley will be performing the role of Dr Coppelius in Melbourne.

  5. Just looking at the casting in Sydney, Colin Peasley is performing. I do not know how and who coaches the character roles for the Australian Ballet company. I have however,often thought, after seeing Colin perform, that the many great character/dramatic roles that he has performed for the company need to be nurtured by this great artist personally on chosen artists from the company. Great story/dramatic ballets need the likes and care and understanding of such artists as Ashton, Powell, and Peasley.Two are deceased and Peasley, in Australia is the only one to pass on this unique artistry to our company.

  6. My daughter (who is training as a ballet dancer)and I went to see Coppelia last week (Wednesday)and left making many of the same comments. We both felt the cast did the steps, sometimes well, sometimes not, but had no feeling for the story. Gina Brescianini did not do the part justice – besides the frequent wobbles and falling out of pirouettes, there was no love, joy, sadness. The pas de deux was just two people going through the motions – they barely made eye contact. For us the Prayer solo was the highlight. We were very disappointed. Our least favourite Aus Ballet performance of the past 10 years.

  7. Yes, it is very disappointing, especially when it is often only possible to see one performance of a work. Unlike a book or a piece of visual art, with dance we can’t always go back for a second look. And you are so right about the lack of feeling for the story on this occasion.

  8. Particularly when the Aus Ballet no longer performs in Canberra, so a trip to the ballet for me requires travel to Sydney and overnight accommodation – a very expensive trip to the ballet (my daughter is training in Sydney however, so an excuse to visit her is also very nice!). I also felt (and this may be very much a personal aesthetic) that Ms Brescianini looked overly gaunt, which made her look quite aged – not like a mischievous and cheeky young woman. I was surprised when I looked at her profile on the Aus Ballet website as she looked quite different. Not a fan of the overly thin dancer.

  9. From it’s very first appearance I have felt that this production had a glazed in amber feel about it. It was as if the designer had leafed through old Paris opera costume and setting plates of the Second Empire ballet and lovingly recreated this period. Together with the producer’s decision to tone done the robust comedy and increase the sinister Hoffmannesque aspects, it resulted in a more stately and measured production. However within this framework there is still plenty of opportunity for spirited characterizations from Swanhilda and Frantz and nice long sequences of pure classical dancing for the principals and various girlfriends and soloists. I resent all the talk about “betty ballerinas” and “emphasis on academic technique”. Finely executed technique is what I go to the ballet hoping to see.

    And last night at the Melbourne opening we were given marvellous performances from Eastoe and Gaudiello. She was secure in everything she did and never flagged. He was quite sensational, with a gasp inducing trick in his final sequence of pirouettes in the Act 3 coda. In fact his whole solo in Act 3 was more reminiscent of Basilio than Frantz ! Their interaction in all the various squabbles and misunderstandings was real and believable. He has the knack of being able to, at once, suggest a contemporay teenage sensibility in his body language and facial expressions and yet fit beautifully into the period setting. Nothing overdone. She managed the transition in the Act 2 finale very well and clearly suggested the remorse she was feeling at the realisation of the hurt they had caused with their activities. And the transition to a married woman for the final pas de deux was good. Like Aurora, in this production there is a movement from the spirited teenager who appears at the window in Act 1 through to the more mature person, made so by her Act 2 realisation, in the Act 3 pas de deux. Hombo was perfect casting for Dawn and, as in Sydney, Stephenson led a finely spirited Czardas. Jones danced Prayer. And the girlfriends lineup was cast superbly from strength :Brescianini, Kubota, Williams, Burnett, Harris, Stojmenov !

    I am not due to see the casting that previous posts have commented on but will be seeing Kubota/Ingham and Stojmenov/Ramos and am hoping the opening night magic is carried through to all performances.

  10. Well I am not surprised that Eastoe and Gaudiello gave the kind of performance Adrian describes. I can imagine them both. I am just envious that my experience, and that of others did not match his.

    The question of academic technique is an interesting one. There ia s difference (I think) between doing the steps correctly and academically and dancing them. I didn’t see much dancing of the steps in Sydney (apart from Dana Stephensen) and again I am envious of Adrian’s experiences.

  11. I wonder, Michelle, if you remember just how perfunctory the 2000 production of Coppélia was? I still remember it all too vividly! Even the 1990 outing, before that, with David McAllister in the first cast… it was well meaning but under-rehearsed, the company just home from a US tour.

    But this outing was as close to perfect as you could hope for: Eastoe/Gaudiello/Peasley at the top of their game. They were *so* good, I didn’t want to jeopardise the memory by returning to see another of the (six?) pairings in the Melbourne season.

    So, yeah, Adrian wasn’t exaggerating! Nor were you in your praise of Dana Stephensen. She’s gone up another notch this year.

  12. Hi Chris, nice to hear from you. The thing that has been bothering me lately about this whole debate is that not everyone gets the opportunity to see the first cast. There’s a whole bunch of people out there (including me these days) who see the show once as a subscriber and see a cast that simply doesn’t measure up. It’s dreadful value for the amount of money that the ticket costs, but worse than that it’s just plain depressing. But I am honestly thrilled, as I also said in response to Adrian, that the Eastoe/Gaudiello/Peasley combination is so good.

  13. Jordan Vincent’s Age review [June 13] indicates that George Ogilvie has had something to do with this current revival. “Mentorship” of the performers is mentioned. So this, I would think, has a lot to do with how fresh this production feels. I saw the Tuesday perf. with the Hombo/Chou/Peasley combination. Originally it was to be Kubota/Ingham but Ingham seems now to be off for this season, so there has been some rearranging of casting. Once again I was not disappointed. Both leads had a good understanding of the characters and danced exceptionally well. Hombo seems always to be floating and never touching the stage. Chou has a winning personality and projects well into the house. My only slight reservation was with the Act 3 pas de deux. The two solos and coda were spectacularly done but the adagio, while danced beautifully, didn’t capture the mature, serene, long breathed lines of the Eastoe/Gaudiello pairing. Prayer was a very fine, rapturous Burnett and Brescianini danced Aurora very choppily with no regard to the complex phrasing of this solo. I can never imagine whoops of joy from the dancers when the casting goes up for these solos but if done well they are very satisfying.

    Chris is right about the previous outings. And wasn’t the 2000 one under Ros Stretton’s regime. And it came after he had loudly proclaimed, as Maina Gielgud left the building, that there would be no more Coppelia’s under his watch !

    Regarding Michelle’s point about casting, I would point out that Tuesday’s performance did not contain any principals. I have made a comment in a previous Coppelia post about this. And Chris is right about the 6 castings for 13 perfs. in Melbourne. Sydney, I think, had 5 ballerinas/6 danseurs [Brescianini had 2 partners over 5 perfs.] over 21 perfs. So each pairing averaged 4 perfs there as against 2 in Melbourne.

    If one is in the position of having the time and money to try and capture a range of performances then all will probably be well. But as Michelle says if you see one performance you would want it to be danced by performers the artistic direction had decided could do full justice to the technical/emotional/interpretive requirements of the roles.

  14. From my experience (especially last year, on the Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year judging panel — I got to see five casts of Sleeping Beauty… lucky me! LOL) the great advantage the first cast has is rehearsal time. There are plenty of riches in the third and fourth casts of most shows. And, to be fair, one has as much chance seeing the first cast at a twilight or matinee performance as any other night. (When I first subscribed I was a ‘youf’ and we had some ripper casts! But I also remember the frustration of reading reviews of different/better casts…)

    I’d love to see Stojmanov’s Swanilda… but Ramos is her partner and, chances are, he’ll make her look bad. (That’s not easy!) Lana Jones is also taking a few of the late performances, but her Prayer on opening night was so dismayingly ordinary, I was hesitant to sign up for her performance.

    And, yes Adrian, the 2000 outing *was* on Ross Stretton’s watch. (What was the company line? “Caring for tradition, daring to be different.” That show was neither!) 😀

  15. Actually Chris, you are absolutely right. I have been subscribing to the ‘Blue’ matinee series in Sydney for yonks now and I have seen some sensational performances, including Madeleine Eastoe’s debut in R & J. It was so remarkable that I even sent a fan letter!!

    I had someone else tell me that Lana was disappointing as Prayer. I think it is an unexciting role choreographically speaking and I honestly can’t remember any dancer who has thrilled me out of my seat. Nor have I ever seen Ramos make a female dancer ‘look good’. Shame that he is partnering Leanne.

    However, no matter what anyone says, to see a performance as I (and Robin) saw in Sydney, which was truly appalling, leaves an unpleasant taste no matter what anyone else has seen.

    As for Ross, I am known to be a fan of his direction. I can’t remember that his Coppelia was as you and Adrian say. As I watched Roberta Marquez in London in Symphony in C recently, who danced with every (EVERY) fibre of her body, even if occasionally she faltered in a strictly ‘academic’ sense, I was reminded of Ross, who I think (despite whatever else might have been going on) extracted/demanded ‘real’ dancing and theatrical understanding from his dancers.

    To harp back on something else I mentioned earlier, I think Laura Jacobs’ recent article in ‘The New Criterion’ has made some brilliant points relating to craftmanship. I especially love the bit about ‘structural verities and tonal range, dramatic tropes and theatrical pacing’. I don’t get any of this kind of thing with the Australian Ballet and that’s what I think is the problem. Where is the direction towards those kind of things? Non existent in my opinion. < http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Dogma—Diaghilev-5296>

  16. I am glad someone else has said what I felt [ but thought was probably alone in thinking ] about Jones’s opening night Prayer performance. I admire her tremendously but not on this occasion. Perhaps, like Brescianini in the Dawn solo I saw, it was just an off night.

  17. My, what a brilliant article! Thanks for the link. I will have to save it and savour it.

    I’ve just checked. I saw a Monday night performance of Coppélia in 2000, so it’s possible I had the misfortune to catch one of those “bad taste in the mouth” performances.

    I’m one (of the few?) not to have taken a side for or against Stretton. I was excited by his stated aims but unimpressed by the rushed (dare I say half arsed?) results. (Dear God, does anyone remember the company baring almost all for Black+White magazine?!)

    As for the classics, my attitude is: if you’re gonna do them, do them well. Lovingly. I vividly recall seeing a bunch of girls (in 2000) who didn’t know how to play girls. It was terribly affected and prissy. It seemed to me that the corps were either badly coached or not coached at all.

    Whether Ogilvie did or didn’t restage the work this year, the fact that Fiona Tonkin is company coach and ballet mistress has had a marked impact on the verismo, if you like, of recent story ballets… agreed?

  18. I don’t know whether Pamela is referring to the Monday or Tuesday performance, but I did attend the Monday one. I had booked to see Stojmenov/Ramos on Monday by exchanging my Tuesday Jones/Gaudiello ticket, but on settling in to my seat I realised that casting had changed again this season and I was now going to see Jones/Gaudiello. No problem with him – he was just as good as on opening night. But I have to say that for me this role did not suit Lana Jones at all well. The natural ebullience and lightness that Eastoe and Hombo brought to the role was missing. And the choreography did not seem to suit her. The opening solo seemed laboured and the 3 circular hops on pointe did not go well. Donnelly was very interesting as Coppelius. He struck me as being very Edward Scissorhand, possibly the son of old Coppelius ! I’m glad he made no effort to act old and doddery.In fact I had the distinct impression Coppelia was being created as a substitute mate rather than daughter. Of course when Swanhilda misbehaves during Act 2 this reading fell apart. Anyway, I was wrong to doubt him in an earlier post. Hombo danced Dawn and Williams was an effective Prayer, doing very smooth bourres and steady arabesque balances.

    So, I certainly wasn’t as thrilled with this performance as I was with the other 2 I saw. However I still think this is a fine overall revival with all the mime detail nicely restored.

  19. Pamela submitted her comment on Tuesday morning but I was unable to approve it till Wednesday. I assume that ‘last night’ was, therefore, Monday.

    As Coppelia has now finished its current run I would like to close this thread and thank everyone who has contributed to such an interesting debate. I am now wondering what Peggy! will bring. Will we be able to pick up in discussion of it Adrian’s comment about roles suiting (or not) certain dancers? This was a notion on which Ross Stretton had views!

  20. the best production of Coppelia was the one with Lisa Pavane(Swanilda) Greg Horsman (Franz) Colin Peasley

  21. Yes it was excellent. But it was a long time ago. It would be great to feel we are moving in that kind of direction again. The dancers (some of them anyway) are good enough.

  22. Comments retrieved from backup.

    Desmond Murphy said:
    Feb. 15, 2011

    Hello, Michelle. I have only just today Feb 15 2011 discovered your interesting website. Your comments on Coppelia strike me as just, remembering I am seeing back through the mists to a Sydney performance last May. Dana Stephensen was, tho, terrific, I thought. Best Wishes
    Michelle said:
    Feb. 15, 2011

    Hi Desmond
    Dana has gone on to justify our belief in her ability with her 2010 Telstra award. Let’s hope we see lots more of her in 2011. Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you find the site interesting.
    Michelle
    Adrian Ryan said:
    Feb. 16, 2011

    Speaking about Coppelia again, The Melbourne Green Room Award nominations have just been announced and amongst the Dance noms are the following :
    Daniel Gaudiello Best Male Performer for Coppelia
    Madeleine Eastoe Best Female Performer for Coppelia
    Also Lucinda Dunn Best Female performer for her role in The Silver Rose
    There are a number of other interesting nominations in the Dance category. The full list can be accessed at their website : http://www.greenroom.org.au
    We seem to have had a better time of it with Coppelia in Melbourne than Sydney spectators did.
    Michelle said:
    Feb. 16, 2011

    Yes, it certainly looks as though Melbourne audiences were more satisfied with what they saw. I am thrilled though that Madeleine Eastoe and Daniel Gaudiello have been nominated for Green Room Awards. They are both exceptional performers. It will be interesting to see the outcome. Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra are strong competition for the Australian Ballet in my opinion. It is especially good to see We Unfold and its creators and performers making themselves felt.

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