On a Tuesday night, I fancied myself carved from the pages of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. I cast myself as Gwenda Reed from “Sleeping Murder.” The year was 1951, and I pinned a bakelite Bluebird of Happiness brooch to my coat lapel. I swapped The Duchess of Malfi for “Coppélia” because this was fantasy, and made for the Palais Theatre in St Kilda. And true to the liberties of daydream, 1951 rolled into both 1962, when the Australian Ballet first performed “Coppélia”during its inaugural season, and 1979, when founding artistic director Peggy van Praagh and former theatre director George Ogilvie revived the production.
On the stage in ’79, Ann Jenner had assumed the role of the wilful Swanhilde, Kelvin Coe, her foolish fiancé, and Ray Powell had donned the many-eyed cloak of Dr. Coppelius, Keeper of the Girl with the Enamel Eyes. But on this particular night, soloists Dimity Azoury and Jarryd Madden were to be my mischievous two, and Jacob Sofer, my misunderstood doctor of mechanical dolls. Entering the theatre, the company’s return to the Palais stage 22 years since their last appearance was infectiously nostalgic (hence the unexpected appearance of Agatha Christie).1 Currently wrapped in covers and scaffolding as it undergoes major restoration, the theatre conveyed a sense of also being bundled up in sentimental longing.
As recalled by current artistic director, David McAllister, “I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts of dancers past…. It’s an extraordinary theatre and I started my career here as a dancer so it’s very exciting to be back…. It was Dame Peggy, it was George Ogilvie, it was Kristian Fredrikson. It has this feeling of great pride in our repertoire. So all the dancers coming to this production for the first time feel like they are stepping into the history of the Australian ballet.”2
Somewhere between the fantastical hybrid of early ’50s-meets-late-’70s, Paris of 1870 was also evoked. Taking my seat, ‘Australia’s Wonder Theatre’ of “Spanish, Moorish, Venetian and Indian influences” with its “French brocade, London trimmings and Belgian silk velvets”3 was the perfectly compressed jewel box for homesickness. With its shallow stage of 15.5 metres, the effect was not unlike looking at a model for a stage design. The space between scenic elements on stage and hanging above was tight, further enforcing the sense of an accordion jewel. With the orchestra on display, suddenly a Degas painting, in which the neck of double bass tickled an expanse of pink tulle, came to life. As the villagers on stage in wait of the Harvest Festival clicked their heels and clapped their hands through the (Hungarian) Czárdás and the (Polish) Mazurkas of Act I, the stage was a tight knot. In the confines of the village square, at times it felt as if their expressive movements had to be reined in. This was balanced by the energy released with every stomp of the feet of the friends of Swanhilde and Franz, and every jangle of their golden necklaces, buckles, and buttons. Fredrikson’s restored costumes (for the 2010 season) would surely have roused Degas. A tawny hued idyll with wheat motifs, and choreography built around circles, and circular patterning, “Coppélia” set about the business of charming and wooing. To which end, leading Mazurka couple Jasmin Durham and Ben Davis excelled.
The ballet, “Coppélia,” symbolises the end of Romanticism. Created in 1870, with original choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon, revised by Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti, there is no enchanted forest with ethereal creatures and the supernatural—no sylphs, wilis, nor witches. But there are ghosts, if you know where to look. And to me that ghost was nostalgia, and hope in the form of Sofer’s Dr. Coppelius. His living dolls are tragically revealed in Act II to be just that—dolls. In this telling, he is not the “hideous, spectral monster…. brandishing red hot tongs”4 of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (1816) on which “Coppélia” is based. In the place of the gothic Sandman throwing sand in the eyes of children so as to make them bleed before stealing their eyes, we have a broken and lonely old man in a tattered coat.
And who wouldn’t be devastated if a troupe of merry troublemakers broke into their home and workshop and set about destroying dreams for their own giddy pleasure? Seen as a headline, Drunken Harvest Youths Break-in and Vandalise an Old Man’s Property Before Tormenting Him. (Alternate title: Couple Commit Felony on Eve of their Wedding.) As the curtain closed, Dr. Coppelius was a crumpled figure lying over his dolls of mechanical parts and stuffing. Reconciled, Swanhilde and Franz were set to dance lightly at tomorrow’s ceremony, but their light was to come at the cost of another’s shadow. Sofer played Dr. Coppelius5 as the wary recluse, and through his eyes, youths were indeed awful and automatons, a refuge. Here is where “Coppélia” truly rings the bell on romantic ballets. Mortal men are no longer enslaved by magical powers. The turban-wearing, chess-playing ‘Turk’ is revealed to be a trick; a machine cannot be human, and androids don’t dream. True nostalgia at play: unattainable.
Like the story, with the dawn, “Coppelius was no more to be seen; it was as if he had left the town.”6 Delight mingled with sorrow, the quiet sadness of Act II was bookended by life and a celebration of it. I forgave Franz and Swanhilde their harm for the journey they took me on. Madden’s light and playful boyish mazurka matured overnight (between Acts I and III) while maintaining a surplus of vim, and Azoury revelled in her Odile-style split moment with her exquisite clockwork movements and straight, wide-legged gait as the Coppélia doll. In the long awaited, Valse de la poupée, I saw the orchestra make the sound of eyes blinking, shoulders shrugging, and arms as they rose up to a hyper-extended fifth position. Consequently, Azoury’s Swanhilde-as-Coppélia was at her most clever and endearing when manipulating the poor Dr. Coppelius. Here, her charm proved an unlaboured spell. Now if that isn’t sorcery!
The celestial, aquamarine twinkle of the Waltz of the hours, sewed stars upon the circular motif, and as if pulled upwards by gossamer threads, twelve illuminations scuttled and delighted. From the promising blush of Jill Ogai’s Dawn and Valerie Tereshchenko’s Prayer, a controlled and lustrous pearl, round and round I was spun. A gothic novella became a comedic ballet in the pocket of the Palais. Between the ideal with the enamel eyes and the real, day and night, rural idyll and workshop’s green gloom, community revelry and a recluse’s heartache, Christianity and Paganism, light and shade, all landed as happily as only a story can.
- The Australian Ballet first performed on the Palais stage in 1964, where they presented eleven world premieres, including van Praagh’s “Coppélia.”
- David McAllister in interview with Cheryl Hall, “The Australian Ballet to revive Coppélia at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre,” ABC, September 22, 2016
- “Palais Theatre, Lower Esplanade, (cnr Cavell Street) St Kilda,” St Kilda Historical Society
- Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann’s The Sandman, 1816
- Dr. Coppelius may have drugged Franz in a bid to steal his life force to make real his Coppélia, but then Franz did break in to his workshop. Whether the workshop is a spider’s lair or otherwise, it is still unavoidably the spider’s own nest and as such I felt only empathy towards him.
- Hoffmann’s The Sandman, http://germanstories.vcu.edu/hoffmann/sand_e.html