Coppelia is glorious

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The principals in Coppelia
Emilio Pavan is the oak on which Meng Ningning alights … the best glutes and quads on the planet

Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia is glorious.

Sumptuous, brilliantly danced and boasting a ripe sense of humour this performance will engage Queenslanders just as company director Li Cun Xin hopes.

It does no harm to his more ambitious goal: to make Queensland Ballet internationally renowned and respected.

The principal dancers are sublime.

Meng Ningning is delicate, graceful and robust at the same time. Her representation of the girl pretending to be a doll that operates under the spell of Dr Coppelius is brilliant dancing, acting and comedy all at once. The sequence where he has her mimic a range of folk dances in quick succession just about had the premiere audience on its feet. She plays with the doctor, the audience and the character while performing a most demanding dance sequence with simple grace.

Emilio Pavan is the perfect complement. The company dancer’s incredible strength, beauty and grace is breath taking. The fact that he is an absolute hunk of a man, with the best glutes and quads on the planet, doesn’t hurt either. His acting ability matches Meng’s, creating a playful and romantic presence that leaps off the stage. Into the bargain, the two of them perform a range of dace feats to create living, breathing sculpture as well as sublime dance and musical theatre.

The second male lead, Nathan Scicluna, almost reaches the soaring heights of the principals. The part does not give him quite as much scope but he makes the most of his opportunities. His humour, charm and wry representation of the dopey bloke who can’t detect romance when he trips over it is a highlight. His Aussie sense of humour reflects that of choreographer Greg Horsman, fully realising the comic potential of his scenes. Arguably, he is the most likeable character on stage.

Horsman has done a brilliant job of bringing a popular and classical work to a modern audience. The fact that Coppelia is so popular and well known presents him with a challenge. Every change he makes to Marius Pepita and Arthur Saint-Léon’s original is scrutinised and challenged by balletomaines.

He has left most of the most famous dances alone, with the delightfully dangerous exception of Australian Rules Footballers in well-known team colours dancing the famous Mazurka with a football. One of the best known pieces of music and popular dances, becomes hilarious, risky and delightful with this simple twist. Of course, it will only confirm the prejudices of some thick-necked northerner who believe that footballers should stay close the ground and rarely, if ever, touch the ball with their feet.

He also teases out the narrative elements as fully as he can, portraying Dr Coppelius as a tragic father obsessed by the loss of his daughter. This adds a great deal of sympathy and depth to that character, so that we sympathise with his aloofness in the first act, villainy in the second and welcome his re-appearance and rapprochement  in the third.

He uses all this and more to give the third act some substance. That act has often been dropped in modern performances of Coppelia as it adds little to the narrative and is simply a showcase of a range of dance styles.

Horsman’s integration of the Scot and German ancestry of the Australian/German village of Hahndorf lent a nice touch of local colour to this and again he applies a good deal of humour to leaven the load. Dr Coppelius is brought in to make peace with the rest of the company, who he has battled consistently through the previous two acts.

What does not work so well, is the inclusion of an extended prologue to introduce the daughter and transport the Doctor and his daughter’s ghost from nineteenth century Germany to Australia.

Yes, being able to love the doctor is a valuable narrative device and yes, localising the scene allows for touches such as the Magpie Mazurka. Essentially though, the prologue and animated story projected on screen form an awkward pause before the ballet begins. Rather than working as an aperitif, or foreplay, it is simply delays the action.

It would have been truly radical and extremely difficult to insert a new dance involving the death of a central character into such a classic ballet, so it is clear why Horsman did not try. However, if his narrative device is worthwhile, then something of that nature is required. It would be a far more elegant solution than an animated in-ship GPS, as the daughter dies and is tipped over the side of the ship on a half-lit stage.

All up, that is a minor complaint.

The staging is beautiful, the dancers stunning, the humour hilarious and the acting delightful. The premieré audience was pleased, thrilled and warmed to the innermost cockles. Li Cun Xin will press his company dancers for more technical excellence and because of the superlative standard set by the principal dancers and the high quality of the performance overall, I’m sure he will get it.

If you love theatre, dance or the ballet and you can afford a ticket take the opportunity. It is wonderful.

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