Words By: Sam Herriman
‘It’s much easier to watch than I thought it would be,’ the woman sitting next to me said to her partner shortly before the start of the third act in the West Australian Ballet’s production of Coppélia. ‘It’s like watching a silent movie, isn’t it?’ the man replied.
It’s probably a widely-held view amongst the masses that ballet is an interminable, elitist art form with little populist appeal, but as Coppéia demonstrates, the technical prowess of the dancers and musicians can combine splendidly with visually stunning staging and choreography (by Greg Horsman), a delightfully comic story and a buoyant score to offer an enjoyable, if thoughtless, evening at the theatre.
Speaking somewhat as a dilettante on the subject of ballet I can safely say that it is not necessary to have even the most rudimentary of knowledge to appreciate the physical and artistic skill of the performers. To reach the sheen of grace and delicacy presented in show is no doubt due to many weeks of intense rehearsal and many years of training. You can see the leg muscles work overtime as the body is stretched to its absolute limit, yet the sweat is never apparent.
The fairly basic plot involves a German doctor who – on his way to the South Australian town of Hahndorf (an alteration from the original libretto I’m sure was designed specifically for this production) –loses his young daughter to illness. Later down the track, two young lovers are brought to conflict thanks to the now reclusive doctor’s attempts to revive his daughter. Narrative comes second to the performance, but it does provide for some excellently conceived routines and sets, including a particularly striking sequence during the second act, set in the doctor’s doll-making workshop.
Other notable segments include a poignant prologue depicting the doctor’s journey from Hamburg to Hahndorf in a wonderfully rendered animation and a brief ensemble scene representing the Hahndorf football teams’ success which further consolidates the already salient link between AFL and ballet. However there is nothing more exhilarating than the entire cast moving in perfectly synchronised motion, a blur of colour and movement accompanied the triumph of music. There are a number of these routines that give off the appearance of complex and elaborate bush/barn dances (complete with the requisite do-si-do).
The score by French composer Léo Delibes is standard light, comic theatrical fare, appropriately supporting the on-stage action and performed with the usual aplomb by members of the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra. A small knock against the evening was the archaic three-act structure which tested the modern audience’s patience but was perhaps necessary due to the elaborate set changes between acts. Also testing the audiences patience was one of the more indulgent curtain call’s I’ve witnessed, which wasn’t to say that the crowd wasn’t appreciative, but after the fifth bow things did start to get repetitive. As you would probably expect from a ballet, the comedy is broad, but impressively derives mostly from the characters. The cartoonish movements and reactions lean heavily on Tom and Jerry, but are are both apt and hilarious, and the performers are game for everything.
Heading to the ballet is always a worthwhile experience. Even the more facile shows are able to offer a night of entertainment, and Coppélia is no different. If you’ve never sought out the ballet before, make sure you head down to His Majesty’s Theatre, where the show is running until the 26ths. I can guarantee you a good time. Or, you know, at the very least comely girls in pretty dresses and sculpted men in revealing tights.