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Coppélia - A Closer Look


TAB Coppelia Sydney Photo Daniel Boud 2016 16 1

A closer look

Coppélia was born in the aftermath of Romanticism and was created in Paris as France was losing its predominance as Europe’s dance capital. With ballet’s popularity declining there were fewer ballerina stars available, and women “en travesti” usurped the male contingent. Coppélia starred an unknown child prodigy, Guiseppina Bozzacchi, partnered by Eugéne Fiocre (who reportedly looked fetching in male attire), and featured a mechanical doll, rather than an ethereal creature, as the “other woman”. Although local colour provided by the robust peasants still tied the ballet to the Romantic formula, its artistic cohesion and inventiveness foreshadowed the classical ballet of the late 19th century. The individual contributions of composer Léo Delibes, choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon, and scenarist Charles Nuitter, commissioned by the Paris Opéra director Emile Perrin, formed an integrated work, proportionally combining music, dance and story.

Choreographically, Saint-Léon - who built his reputation upon his strong sense of rhythm, his ability to mould choreography to the star’s talents, and his aptitude for assimilating ethnic material – developed a sparkling divertissement, charming solos, refined ensemble passages, and an ingenious use of national dances, notably the Hungarian czardas. Ironically, the very choreographer who devised a system of dance notation did not record his own choreography for Coppélia. Ensconced in the Paris Opéra’s active repertory, interrupted only by the Franco-Prussian War and the temporary closing of the theatre, Saint-Léon’s choreography has in some form been preserved in the house’s production.

Coppélia’s dramatic elements are entrusted to Doctor Coppelius, the ballet’s most complex and paradoxical character. Because he is often portrayed as a doddering old fool, eccentric, absent-minded, and ridiculous, there is a tendency to gloss over the sinister, dark facets of his personality. Coppelius may be a lonely man, aching for reciprocal affection, but his modus operandi is psychologically warped. Scientist, master mechanic, and sorcerer, he consciously attempts to steal a young man’s life force in order to humanise his creation. Despite his selfishness, he must propel the ballet’s comic premise.

Of the three main characters, the most underdeveloped, both conceptually and mentally, is Franz, whose comic heritage descends from commedia dell’arte through La Fille mal gardée. Shallow, self-satisfied, easily duped, and fickle, Franz is unequivocally a fool. Swanilda, on the other hand, is unsophisticated but clever. She should be saucy and mischievous, not overbearing and cruel. Like her ancestor from La Fill mal gardée, Lise, she is playfully unruly and coyly manipulative. The role requires a capable technician and an accomplished comic actress.

Coppélia owes its longevity to its inspired, very danceable score. But the ballet is also remarkable for its perennial appeal and for its historical significance as Romanticism’s grand finale and classical ballet’s prologue.

An Australian history

No ballerina is more closely associated with the role of Swanilda than Adeline Genée. She captivated audiences across Western Europe, Great Britain and America with her delicate charm, strong technique and, as one critic described them, "her twinkling feet". She introduced Coppélia to Australian audiences on 21 June 1913 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, during her Imperial Russian Ballet season. More than a quarter of a century passed before Coppélia was staged again professionally in Australia. In 1940 the Original Ballet Russe presented a two-act version at Sydney’s Theatre Royal with Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova alternating as Swanilda; both were partnered by Michael Panieff and the production was by the company’s ballet master Anatole Oboukhoff.

The first “original” Australian production was presented by the Borovansky Ballet in Melbourne during 1946 with Edna Busse as Swanilda, Serge Bousloff as Franz and Borovansky as Dr Coppélius. Laurel Martyn produced and danced in the Victorian Ballet Guild’s two-act version of 1951 and three years later Valrene Tweedie produced the first three-act version of Coppélia to be seen in Australia for the National Theatre Ballet. The Royal Ballet included a full-length Coppélia in its repertoire for its 1958 visit. Robert Helpmann made his first ballet appearance in his homeland for more than 25 years when he appeared as Dr Coppelius at Sydney’s Empire Theatre. Following the death of Edourd Borovansky, his company was directed by Peggy van Praagh, herself a memorable Swanilda with the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet during the 1940s. Not unnaturally, one of Peggy van Praagh’s first tasks was to produce a new three-act Coppélia commissioning Australian artist Kenneth Rowell to design the costumes and scenery. The opening night of 22 October 1960, at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne featured Kathleen Gorham as Swanilda, Robert Pomie as Franz and Algeranoff, a former member of Anna Pavlova’s company, as Dr Coppélius.

When The Australian Ballet was formed in 1962, Peggy van Praagh’s production was taken into the new company’s inaugural repertoire. This first version of the ballet for The Australian Ballet saw many of the company’s earliest stars portray the principal roles. The part of Swanilda was danced by Sonia Arova, Kathleen Gorham, Marilyn Jones, Barbara Chambers, Patricia Cox, Robyn Croft, Elaine Fifield and Alida Belair. Franz was danced by Erik Bruhn, Garth Welch, Caj Selling, Robert Pomie, Jonathan Watts, Karl Welander, Alan Alder, Walter Bourke and Kelvin Coe, and the role of Dr Coppelius originally had five interpreters; Algeranoff, Barry Kitcher, Robert Olup, Robert Helpmann and Ray Powell.

The current production by George Ogilvie and Peggy van Praagh premiered in 1979 with Anne Jenner as Swanilda, Kelvin Coe as Franz and Ray Powell as Dr Coppelius.

(Excerpt from Edward Pask’s program notes)

© Edward Pask

Peggy van Praagh (1910-1990)

Peggy van Praagh’s career in England spanned a period of over a quarter of a century, from the pioneering days of British ballet’s infancy to the full flowering of the Sadler’s Wells and Royal Ballet companies. From humble beginnings in balletic interludes arranged by Anton Dolin for revues at the London Coliseum, her professional career as a performer progressed via increasingly important roles with the Carmargo Society and Rambert’s Ballet Club, to her position as one the principal dancers in Antony Tudor’s London Ballet (1938) and as a member of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the early 1940s.

In spite of a somewhat difficult physique, van Praagh was a very strong technician as well as an expressive artist of great distinction. The breadth of her dramatic range as a dancer is exemplified by two of the very contrasting roles for which she is particularly remembered: An Episode in His Past, in Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas – a study in emotional conflict – and Swanilda, in Coppélia – a sunny soubrette of a role, requiring a virtuoso technique.

Although Peggy van Praagh had an enviable reputation as a teacher and examiner of the Cecchetti method, it was as ballet mistress and eventually as assistant director of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet company that she was to make her greatest contribution to British ballet. Peggy van Praagh’s departure from the British ballet scene was to become Australia’s gain. After being invited to take over the direction of the Borovansky Ballet on his death, she settled permanently in Australia, becoming the first director of the newly formed Australian Ballet, where her greatest achievements were probably the development of international standards of performance and in her restaging of the 19th century classics.

“Ever since the early forties, Coppélia seems to have been part of my life. I did not expect to dance Swanilda when I first joined the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet in 1941. I was not even the understudy for the role. In June 1942, London was subjected to severe air raids. One of the company’s ballerinas, Mary Honer, was at the Café de Paris when it received a direct hit. She was lucky to escape serious injury, but suffered severe shock and was unable to dance for several weeks.

“Dame Ninette de Valois, the company’s Artistic Director, telephoned to inform me that I was to dance Swanilda in Oxford in four days’ time and that I should come immediately to rehearse the role. Robert Helpmann, who was to partner me as Franz, could only attend but one rehearsal of the pas de deux. The rest of the company was on tour and I was unable to rehearse with them. So one evening in June 1942, it was a very nervous Swanilda that took to the stage.

“Later I grew to enjoy the role which I danced many times before I left the company in 1946 to become Ballet Mistress of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. It then became my fate to teach Swanilda to other dancers and to be finally entrusted with the production of the complete ballet when it was added to the repertoire of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in September 1951.

“My next production was for the Borovansky Ballet in Melbourne during October 1960 with Kathleen Gorham and Robert Pomie, together with Algeranoff as Dr Coppelius. This production was revived in November 1962 during The Australian Ballet’s inaugural season in Sydney, with Sonia Arova, Erik Bruhn and Algeranoff dancing the principal roles.”

George Ogilvie (1931 - 2020)

George Ogilvie’s distinguished career began with the Canberra Repertory Theatre as an actor. Since then he has established a prestigious list of credits, firstly as an actor and, from the early 1960s, as a teacher and director for theatre, television and film.

In 1965, he returned from training, teaching and acting in England and Europe to take up the position of Associate Director with the Melbourne Theatre Company. He was with the MTC for six years where he directed some 23 plays while continuing his workshop training for actors. During this period he won the Melbourne Theatre Critics’ Award for Best Director three times. During his time with the Melbourne Theatre Company he developed his renowned workshop training with actors and taught drama at The Australian Ballet School, using mime and gesture to teach students of dance.

He spent 1972 – 1975 as Artistic Director of the South Australian Theatre Company before becoming a freelance director, working with The Australian Opera (Don Giovanni, Lucrezia Borgia), The Australian Ballet and various Australian theatre companies. His teaching continued during this period with NIDA, the Eora Centre and other drama schools. His television credits as a director include The Dismissal, Bodyline, The Shiralee, Princess Kate, The Battlers, and The Feds. Film credits include Mad Max II, Short Changed, A Place at the Coast and The Crossing. Most recently George Ogilvie has directed plays for Playbox Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Q Theatre, and the Ensemble Theatre

“I have approached the ballet of Coppélia with a definite idea in mind. The main theme, both in the music and story, is that of celebration, the celebration of life in a simple rural community. The most important celebration in country life is the Harvest Festival – when the year’s work comes to fruition – and the designer Kristian Fredrikson and myself have planned the ballet to be the preparation for and celebration of this festival.

“This is no arbitrary decision, as the score gives us very definite ideas. The first act, which takes place on the day before the Festival, celebrates the gift to the village of a new church bell by the Seigneur. Such a gift is always given during the Festival and rung on the day of the Harvest.

“In legend, and in fact, the most auspicious time for marriage is at Harvest and, of course, the ballet celebrates the marriage of Franz and Swanilda. We have included the marriage of Swanilda’s six friends as well.

“A mixture of pagan and Christian ritual leads the Festival to the door of the church in the third act and, blessed by Hymen, the god of Harvest, the celebration takes place.

“For me, Dr Coppelius represents the dark side of life; for instead of celebrating life, as the village does, he attempts to create life by transferring the soul of a human being into a doll of his own making. His rejection of the community and his solitary twisted life form the contrasting drama to what is essentially a joyous expression, through dance, of life and its rewards for past effort and hopes for the future.”


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