Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Coppélia’. The Australian Ballet (2016)

10 December 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

On 10 December 2016, I saw the 258th performance by the Australian Ballet of Peggy van Praagh’s production of Coppélia. A few aspects of the van Praagh production seem to have changed over the years since it received its premiere in 1979, perhaps not always for the best, but it remains a strong production and a delightful excursion into the world of 19th century ballet—the original production premiered in Paris in 1870.

At the 258th performance I had the good fortune to see Leanne Stojmenov as Swanilda. Her characterisation was engaging and beautifully maintained from beginning to end, including at those times when she was not the centre of attention but mingling with others on the side of the stage. She smiled, she frowned, she pouted, she stamped her foot, she was playful—her every thought was so clear. Her dancing was calm and assured but still technically exciting. It was a truly charming performance. She was partnered by Ty King-Wall as an attentive Franz who persisted in his pursuit of her, despite her various mini tantrums over his behaviour, and despite that ear of corn that refused to make the appropriate noise for them. Together they were the epitome of a village couple, as indeed they are meant to be.

As Dr Coppélius, Ben Davis gave a competent performance and it is always a pleasure to see Dr Coppélius minus the over the top pantomime-style characterisation that is often the way this character is portrayed. But, by the same token, Dr Coppélius does need to have a strength of character and Davis didn’t quite manage to convey anything that might give us a clue to this character’s personality. He was just a nice old toy-maker/magician. I also missed Dr Coppélius’ appearance in Act III, when he demands and receives compensation for the destruction Swanilda and Franz have caused to his workshop in Act II. Maybe I am imagining that this scene was once part of van Praagh’s production? But it is a part of many other productions and it rounds off that section of the story very nicely.

It was a good day for the male corps de ballet—Franz’s friends danced exceptionally well, especially in Act I. Ella Havelka and Jake Mangakahia led the Act I character dances with good style. And I always enjoy seeing Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow onstage and they stood out among Swanilda’s friends, especially in the dance of the wedding couples in Act III.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', Act III, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Coppélia, Act III (Wedding couples), 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Natasha Kusen danced a lovely Prayer. She brought a peaceful quality to the role and technically scarcely faltered.

Kristian Fredrikson’s designs still look beautiful, although I had forgotten how large (and often overpowering) some of his headdresses are. I had also forgotten how beautiful his all-white costume for Prayer is—so much nicer, and still appropriate, than the very drab, usually grey-ish Prayer outfits seen in some other productions.

Coppélia, and this performance in particular, was an absolutely delightful way to end the Australian Ballet’s 2016 season. It no doubt benefited from input from dramaturg George Ogilvie, who worked with van Praagh and Fredrikson in 1979 on the creation of van Praagh’s production, and who returned to advise on the show this year.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2016

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Coppélia, Act III (Hours of the Night) 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Coppélia’. Australian Conservatoire of Ballet

18 December 2015 (evening), Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

What a wonderful surprise this performance was! The venue was interesting—Hamer Hall is basically a venue for concerts and so the performance space is without a proscenium arch. But the unusual space was used thoughtfully and little of the theatricality that is achieved with a proscenium-style theatre was lost.

This Coppélia was staged by Maina Gielgud especially for the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, a training establishment led by former Australian Ballet dancers Christine Walsh and Ricardo Ella. Gielgud had added some choreography and had made some changes in order to accommodate her cast, including giving Swanilda (Swanhilda in this production) a little sister called Elysia, adding two extra friends for Swanilda and, with fewer male dancers than might be available in a company, rearranging some dances slightly. Gielgud also re-imagined somewhat the character of Dr Coppélius having him make two swans, a spider, a caterpillar and other creatures, which we saw in his workshop in Act II,  in addition to his ultimate creation, the doll Coppélia. Otherwise the ballet ran as we have come to expect.

Coppelia's friends in rehearsal, Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, 2015

Coppélia’s friends in rehearsal, Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, 2015

But this was no ordinary school production. The dancers had been beautifully trained, thoroughly rehearsed and looked like professionals. It was a thrill to see such a sense of engagement among the cast throughout the show, which of course transfers across into the auditorium and gives the audience a sense of engagement as well. And this theatricality began early with a wonderful performance of the Act I Mazurka. This was not one of those staid renditions that we often see. This was real character dancing with bodies bending, faces beaming with pleasure, and steps being performed strongly. And the same can be said of the Czardas that followed later in the act

Two guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawantani and Arata Miyagawa, took the leading roles. Both were beautiful dancers but, in particular, Miyagawa as Franz was technically superb. Everything was so cleanly executed. His double tours were done with such perfection in the body and feet (and amazing landings in a perfectly placed demi-plié), but they also soared upwards in a way that made me gasp. Then there were the manèges of various steps, the pirouettes, his partnering—he was just brilliant. But more than that, he too had that sense of engagement with everything and everyone on stage. I just loved the way he blew kisses across the stage to Swanilda as she was about to start a variation in Act III.

Another standout performer was the young girl, Hana Glasgow-Palmer, who played Swanilda’s little sister. Too young yet to be part of the Conservatoire’s professional training program, she nevertheless gave the role real character. Her outstanding stage presence and, again, that ability to engage, augurs well for her future. I also especially enjoyed Prayer, danced calmly and serenely by Victoria Norris. But every dancer contributed beautifully to this performance and, quite honestly, in a number of ways it outshone many a professional show I have seen.

The music was played by the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet Orchestra, with some musicians seated on a dais upstage, others above the stage space. The orchestra was led by conductor Peter Tandy and there were times when the music gave me goose bumps, again something I don’t normally feel when listening to orchestral accompaniments at the ballet.

This Coppélia was a significant achievement for all concerned.

Christine Walsh, Maria Kawayani, Maina Gielgud

Christine Walsh, Maria Kawatani, Maina Gielgud

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2015

 

 

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

The Australian Ballet in 2016

Benedicte Bemet (left), Cristiano Martino (centre), and Jade Wood (right), 2015. Photos: © Justin Ridler

Mixed in with old faithfuls like Swan Lake and Coppélia, the Australian Ballet’s program for 2016 contains one or two works that we can anticipate with a bit of excitement. One of them is John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which will be seen in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, although we will have to wait until the last few months of the year.

Nijinsky was created in 2000 for Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet and was seen recently in Australia when Hamburg Ballet performed it in Brisbane in 2012. On that occasion it received a standing ovation on its opening night—and I mean a real standing ovation where the theatre rose as one. No stragglers, no people leaving to catch the subway before the rush, no one standing up because they couldn’t see what was happening because the person in the row in front was blocking their view. A proper standing ovation. Neumeier calls Nijinsky ‘a biography of the soul, of feelings, emotions, and of states of mind’. It needs wonderful dancing, and fabulous acting. My fingers are crossed. Here is what I wrote about it from Brisbane.

Another program that fills me with anticipation is a triple bill called Vitesse presenting works by Christopher Wheeldon (DGV: Danse à grande vitesse), Jiri Kylian (Forgotten Land) and William Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated). It is scheduled for the early part of the year and will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney.

Forgotten Land and In the Middle are not new to the Australian Ballet repertoire having been introduced during Maina Gielgud’s artistic directorship. I remember watching people leave the auditorium after the opening sounds of Thom Willems score for In the Middle (it was 20 years ago), but it showed off certain dancers of that era absolutely brilliantly. But the Wheeldon is new to Australia. It is a work for 26 dancers with four pairs of dancers at the heart of the work. It shows in particular Wheeldon’s skill at creating pas de deux. In the Royal Ballet program notes from its showing in 2011, Roslyn Sulcas writes of Wheeldon that ‘[He]—like his ballets—is both traditional and innovative, able to inhabit an older world while moving firmly forward towards the new.’ Here is what I wrote after seeing it, on a very different mixed bill program, in London in 2011.

Then I await Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet, exclusive to Melbourne in June and July, with anticipation mixed with trepidation. I was not a fan of his Bayadère, although I have loved some of his shorter works. But the word is that his R & J is ‘quite good’. Fingers crossed again.

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo Amitava Sarkar

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

As for the rest of the year, Brisbane will get Ratmansky’s Cinderella in February; Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake returns with seasons in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne; a program called Symphony in C will run concurrently in Sydney with the Vitesse program, although it is not exactly clear as yet of what the Symphony in C program will consist; and Coppélia will be in Sydney and Melbourne towards the end of the year. I think this is the Peggy van Praagh/George Ogilvie production from 1979, but the media release is a little confusing. ‘Having first revisited Coppélia in 1979, the great choreographer re-invigorated it thirty years later with this joyful and sumptuous production.’ Who is that great choreographer? Not PVP who was not really the choreographer and who died anyway in 1990.

And for my Canberra readers, we won’t be seeing the Australian Ballet in 2016 in the national capital where we too pay taxes.

Michelle Potter, 23 September 2015 

Featured image: Dancer of the Australian Ballet in costume for Coppélia, 2015 (detail). Photo: © Justin Ridler

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

  • Full details of the 2016 season are on the Australian Ballet’s website.

‘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