Coppélia (Western Australian Ballet)
The traveling shows of the late 18th and early 19th centuries featuring mechanical automata are believed to have influenced the creation of Coppelia, a ballet on a mechanical doll created by Dr Coppélius, which was first performed in 1870 in Paris.
The distance traveled since, especially from Austria to its new setting in South Australia in this production choreographed by Greg Horsman. He wanted to make it more relevant to Australian audiences by locating it here and making the plot more realistic. The most cheeky idea was to incorporate footballers throwing and bouncing the oval ball (carefully) to capture the attention of the girls. Well, it’s a comedic ballet after all, although you wouldn’t initially think it was.
To give Dr. Coppélius a personal reason to build the doll, Horsman incorporates his daughter’s death, which occurs on the trip to Australia. He adds that story through a gripping filmed prologue that resembles huge comic book illustrations in sepia colors. Certainly a different start from a classical ballet.
Hugh Colman’s sets are pastoral – gum trees, wooden buildings, a small church and a fantastic interior of the studio bordered by Coppélius wood with body parts hanging from rafters and a control panel. Here, the grieving doctor (Christian Luck) made a replica of his dead beautiful daughter. Luck does a good job in a rather unlucky role – the Mad Professor – wringing his hands and chasing shadows.
Jon Buswell’s lighting design is superb, especially as night approaches. Shades of mauve and turquoise fill the backdrop and the stars begin to twinkle. It even makes you feel the coolness coming down. Noelene Hill’s costumes echo these colors albeit in paler hues; the exquisite circular skirts apparently of the finest silks (must be a rich agricultural country) captivate the eye.
So it’s a delightful visual spectacle. History itself is centuries old; a new girl comes to town, her boyfriend gets lost.
In the village, people are furious with their new recluse doctor who refuses to treat them but occasionally puts Coppélia, uncommunicative, on the balcony. Through a series of comedic misadventures, Franz (Oscar Valdez) is surprised by his girlfriend Swanilda (Carina Roberts) giving doll kisses, thinking she is human, the girls are caught snooping around. The interior of Coppélius and Franz’s studio is poisoned by the doctor in the hope that his body organs will bring Coppélia to life.
Roberts is eloquent, expressive and radiant. When she spins slowly, she’s as smooth and controlled as melted honey slipping off your wooden spoon. Valdez is an accomplished dancer, imposing, lively and powerful. Both could modulate between comic relief and intensity. Their difficult duets, requiring a lot of strength and composure, were well calibrated although the physical attraction didn’t quite kick in.
This was not the case with Mary (Glenda Garcia Gomez) and Henry (Juan Carlos Osma). Gomez’s flirtatious demeanor – mean smile, pout, sexy looks – thawed Henry who wasn’t too aware of it. Osma’s skillful handling of her slim, long body always dazzles. Gomez was on hand as the brave and daring Mary and a perfect foil for the spooky cat Lisle (Nikki Blain.) Blain was funny, flexible and convincing. As for the body, the dancers were lively, coordinated, full of youthful verve and good humor.
The West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jessica Gethin was melodic and compelling. Some productions of Coppelia omitted the third act because it is considered too long. Hang around a bit, yes. Funny, yes. A good evening, yes, you bet!
Coppelia plays at His Majesty’s Theater in Perth until September 25.