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English National Ballet

'Coppelia'

by Kate Snedeker

July 12, 2003 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre

On Saturday night, the English National Ballet's season at Sadler Wells concluded with a performance of "Coppelia."

Choreographed for the company by Ronald Hynd, "Coppelia" is an endearing tale about an eccentric dollmaker, his beautiful and life-like doll and a pair of curious young lovers. All these various elements in the story are bound together by Leo Delibes soaring score. Unfortunately, despite some solid dancing, English National Ballet’s "Coppelia" failed to take off on Saturday night.

Desmond Heeley’s colorful set was full of delightful details, from the porch of the quaint village inn to the stone well and the rounded roofs of the distant church. However, although it was aesthetically pleasing, this elaborate set made the production feel cluttered and the dancing cramped. The patterned flooring, which gave the impression of grass, was pleasant in the first act, but out of place and distracting in the last two acts.

Hynd’s production is clearly based on Petipa’s original and includes a lovingly choreographed wedding celebration in the Act Three. However the decision to have Franz and Swanilda’s reconcile at the end of the first act deprives the storyline of the main impetus. Why would Swanilda forgive Frantz if she didn’t know Coppelia was a doll? And if they had reconciled, why then would each still sneak into Coppelius' workshop in search of the mysterious girl?

Hynd’s version also veers into unsure ground with a very literal interpretation of Coppelius' attempt to transfer Franz's "life energy" to Coppelia. The spark-emitting machine Dr. Coppelius uses to “transfer” the life energy is certainly memorable, but because Coppelia is hooked up to the machine, the choreography very stilted and lacks a human, tender quality. It also makes Coppelius seem more like a mad scientist than an eccentric old doll maker.

The enthusiastic, if not always technically polished cast was led by Elena Glurdjidze and Dmitri Gruzdyev as Swanilda and Frantz. Glurdjidze, a very lyrical dancer, was solid in the difficult hops on point and sailed through her solos. Though Gruzdyev’s grand jetés en menage were nicely stretched, much of his dancing seemed heavy and earthbound. He also had a disconcerting tendency to dance very much to the audience, the effect being to distance himself from the onstage story. Yet, Gruzdyev’s mime in the second act was very convincing, the timing of his spasms perfectly in synch with Dr. Coppelius' manipulations of the machine.

The strongest performance came from soloist Gary Avis as a wild-haired Dr. Coppelius. Avis’ interpretation was fully fleshed out and was carried throughout the performance, clearly the product of much offstage research and experimentation. Hair jutting out in a multitude of directions and almost maniacally eager in his attempt to bring Coppelia to life, this Dr. Coppelius was very much a mad scientist, but a kind soul despite his eccentricities.

Since the first and last of acts of "Coppelia" are comprised in large part of group dances, the corps is an essential part of the production. Yet, for the most part, the English National Ballet corps did not appear up to the challenge of Hynd’s choreography. The folk dances in the first act were pleasantly performed and well synchronized, but lacked any real energy or passion. Swanhilda's friends were well danced and acted, but especially in the third act, there was a technical level of the male corps was very uneven. If this is indeed representative of the general technique level of the male dancers, something needs to be done to bring the male corps to a level consistent with the demands of the repertory.

Anthony Twiner conducted the Orchestra of the English National Ballet.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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