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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Coppélia'

by David Mead

June 5, 2013 -- Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, UK

With its easy to understand story, humour and pleasant choreography, “Coppélia” is close to the perfect ballet for many. Peter Farmer’s designs are a winner too with his unspoiled mid-European village buried amid rich green foliage and set alongside a dark lake. It all suggests immediately mystery and magic. But even ballets like “Coppélia” can wear you down. It is not so much that one knows the story inside out or every comedy moment. It is just that everything just seems so set in its ways, so comfortable, even safe, and it has to be said, so terribly dated, not least the tiresome and endless “me Tarzan, you Jane” mime.

From time to time, though, something or someone comes along and the whole thing seems reinvigorated. That certainly happened here. Momoko Hirata and Chou Tzu-chao as Swanhilda and Franz did not so much breathe new life into the ballet as send a gale coursing through it.

Hirata does not quite match some others for acting. In particular, she has not quite got the hang of looking indignant yet, but there was a point when I really did feel she was about to burst into tears as Franz’s attention turned to a gypsy girl yet again. By the time we got to Dr. Coppélius’ workshop she was totally believable, though. She does impetuous well. Let’s not forget that on this score Swanhilda is almost as bad as Franz. There is a lovely glimmer in her eye her when she is about to do something that she knows she really shouldn’t. Who is it, after all, who leads the rest of the girls, one decidedly unwillingly, into Dr. Coppélius’ house, and then has the idea to set all the toys off in the workshop? Any minor shortcomings on the acting side were more than made up for by her dancing. She is the most marvellous technician. Everything is so clean and precise. Like all outstanding dancers she always seems to have so much time; nothing ever seems rushed. And she actually looks like she is enjoying it, which helps us enjoy it too.

In his first principal role since joining from Australian Ballet two years ago, Chou looked like he was having a good time too. Does he ever look anything else? I do not think I’ve ever seen Franz look so happy, with absolutely no idea of the upset his jack-the-lad womanising was causing. He attacked everything with his usual gusto, on occasion perhaps a little too much. His pirouettes were amazingly fast and clean, and his leaps soared, even if there was the occasional slightly less than perfect landing. He is far from the tallest male dancer in the company, but his partnering and lifting was neat and secure; although there were a couple of times in the Act III pas de deux when brining Hirata down from a lift looked more difficult than it should have. Mind you, when you have a face full of saw-like tuille, nothing is easy.

Elsewhere, Rory Mackay was the bewildered Dr Coppélius, bringing equal amounts of pathos and comedy to the proceedings. Angela Paul was perfectly brash and sassy as the gypsy who catches Franz’s attention in Act I. In Act III, Céline Gittens shone as Dawn, although Delia Matthews was a little shaky as Prayer. The corps were on top form, with the men in Call to Arms, led by Mathias Dingman, looking particularly sharp.

Hoorah too a return to the traditional ending. For many years Act III in Birmingham has been followed by a short coda in which the desolate Coppélius wheels his doll across the empty stage, wondering what might have been, only for her really to come alive. Its loss will not be mourned.

If there is one gripe about the production, it is that sometimes things seem to be taken too fast. The entry of the girls into Dr. Coppélius’ house is over in a flash. Maybe the memory is playing tricks, but I am sure it used to take longer. And I am not sure who was at fault, but yet again, the first act curtain was down before Chou had barely got one foot on the ladder, and before the music finished.

When performed like this, Coppélia remains an appealing ballet. My love for it has been rekindled. I could certainly watch this couple again. The on-stage chemistry between them certainly grew as the ballet progressed, and this is surely a partnership to watch. Both are still only First Soloists, but let’s hope they get more opportunities and soon.

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