The curtain of the State Theatre Opera house in Pretoria opened on Friday 30 June to reveal a picture book country village complete with rich autumn coloured costumed characters: both set and costumes created by Peter Cazalet for the South African Ballet Theatre. Men in tights. Tight tights. Unfortunately they are often covered in something somewhat less revealing; girls in flowing ballerina length folk dresses.
The story line of CoppÃ©lia is simple: Sweet Swanilda’s fiance, Franz, falls in love with a mechanical doll, (not a blow-up doll, what are you thinking?) the eponymous CoppÃ©lia, manufactured by crotchety old Dr CoppÃ©lius. Swanilda points out a few facts of life to Franz, he eventually thanks his lucky stars, they get married, get lots of loot as wedding gifts and everyone lives happily ever after.
Act I is filled with village crowd scenes and I was pleased to note that the timing of Delibes’ music and the delicate choreography of Arthur St Leon and Marius Petipa, with its meticulous symmetry, didn’t elude the dancers this time. The corps de ballet improve, one could almost say with “leaps and bounds”, but in reality it is more with simultaneous hand movements and well timed steps.
The role of Swanilda, an innocent young slip of a country lass, was danced by Burnise Silvius, and its precise and elegant footwork, classical clarity, and sunny atmosphere, suits her many talents. She reacts to the glorious, but canned, music of Delibes and to the rest of the cast, with grace and elegance. I felt for her as her loving advances were spurned and empathised as she flounced off stage, hurt and sweetly petulant by the cocky and impulsive Franz (Michael Revie). Hasn’t every gay man seen this in his own life, but not necessarily for the given reason? This was pantomime acting at its best.
Act II takes place in the workshop of the creator of the mechanical dolls, and it is one of ballet’s most perfect storytelling acts, a combination of comedy, drama, and virtuosity. Iain MacDonald is a technically accomplished dancer and his Doctor was wiry and spry, but cartoonish, and I missed Nigel Hannah with his sure grasp of mime in the role of Dr CoppÃ©lius. The attempted theft of the drugged (be careful of the drinks at strange men’s homes) Franz’ soul to bring CoppÃ©lia to life has been more sinister in the past, but his misplaced ambition, overreaching pride, and pathetic comeuppance was eventually conveyed. The dancing of Silvius in this act was superb. She conveys the mechanical animation superbly, contrasting the “live” with the rest so well that one almost believes it is two different people.
Act III takes us back to the village square and all the bethrothed couples (sadly there are no gay couples in the staged ballet regardless of what holds true in the ballet company) get purses of gold as presents, while Dr CoppÃ©lius is similarly compensated for his losses, but otherwise given a raw deal. Dawn (Angela Malan) and Prayer (Tanja Graafland) celebrate the hours of the day (a religious concept, I think) and the marriage, or at least the bethrothal, of Swanhild and Franz takes place.
Of course, much of the pleasure of opening night and, indeed, any evening at the ballet is actually in the details which are not strictly part of the production. Ogling the pretty young things in the audience, greeting friends and being seen by the right people, or at least seeing the right people and catching up on gossip are all things which add quite considerably to the pleasure of the ballet itself.
CoppÃ©lia is a complex and rich ballet, both artistically and socially, and it all comes together as a perfectly natural, feel good experience to cause one to leave the theatre smiling and happy, looking forward to the next ballet experience of the SABT which will be the Triple Bill and/or Hamlet at the Civic in Johannesburg later this year. Don’t miss this dahlings!
CoppÃ©lia runs until 16 July.
Moira, the Faerie Godmother