Coppélia: Playing dolls

Posted on 20 June 2019 By Rose Mulready

The ballerina playing Swanilda, the heroine of Coppélia, faces some unusual technical challenges. Not only must she play a feisty, flirtatious peasant girl who transforms into a dignified bride, but she must portray that same girl pretending to be a doll who slowly comes to life. It's a hall-of-mirrors feat that tests the dancer's control and artistry to the utmost.

How did Swanilda get into this fix? Dr Coppelius, the village's mysterious inventor, has created a marvellous lifelike doll, his 'daughter', Coppélia. Both Swanilda and her boyfriend Franz are fooled by her. They think she's alive, and are piqued by the aloof beauty's refusal to respond to their friendly overtures. Unbeknownst to each other, both Franz and Swanilda sneak into the house to investigate. The bold Swanilda quickly discovers that the beautiful stranger is an automaton, but before she can escape, Dr Coppelius returns to his workroom. The only place to hide is Coppélia's little room. As swiftly as she can, Swanilda strips Coppélia of her clothes and puts them on herself.

Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota. Photography Branco Gaica

Meanwhile, Dr Coppelius has befuddled Franz with a sleeping powder and attempts to steal his life force in order to animate Coppélia. When 'Coppélia' moves and opens her eyes, he is overjoyed, thinking the transference has been successful. At this point, the ballerina must mimic the automata that were so popular in the 19th century: her challenge is to move with balletic grace and form while conveying stiff limbs, clockwork blinks and staccato movements. As Coppelius 'animates' different parts of her, from eyes to feet, Swanilda moves into a choppy waltz, alternating with limp falls as if her mannequin's stuffing has deserted her.

Leanne Stojmenov and Damien Welch. Photography Branco Gaica

Emboldened by the success of his experiment, the inventor returns to Franz for a fresh supply of 'life force'. With this extra vitality coursing through her veins, the doll appears to abandon her jerky animation and awakens to real human life. The ballerina must convey the nuances of slowly softening limbs - but her technical challenges are not over yet! As Coppelius hands her a mirror to admire her own beauty, Swanilda performs a deep penché arabesque - followed by two tricky, fleet-footed variations as the Doctor, delighting in his creation's virtuosity, spurs her on to perform a Spanish and a Scottish dance.

Swanilda's last transformation is an emotional one. When Dr Coppelius discovers the limp body of his doll and realises he's been deceived, he crumples into a ball of devastated loss. Swanilda, overcome with pity, tries to go to him before being rushed out of the house by Franz. George Ogilvie, the director of The Australian Ballet's 1979 production, sees this as a pivotal point in her development. "For me, Swanilda grows up at that moment - and becomes the woman who will be the bride of the third act."

Come see our ballerinas pull off this extraordinary scene! We're performing Coppélia in regional Australian in 2019 - locations and tickets here

Damien Welch. Photography Branco Gaica