Dance, Reviews, Stage

Coppelia (Palais Theatre, Melbourne)

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On a regular Friday evening, the number 16 tram to the buzzing waterfront area of St. Kilda is normally jammed with office workers chasing a drink or three, or young types ready to dance till dawn.

The crowd, and dance style were a little different on Friday (September 23) as St. Kilda’s famous old theatre, The Palais, was home to The Australian Ballet’s opening night of Coppelia.

Discussion heard among the ballet-goers revealed some confusion. Why The Palais, and not the company’s regular haunt at the Arts Centre, Melbourne?

History holds the reason. The grand proscenium arch stage hosted the company’s inaugural season of the fairytale ballet, created by George Ogilvie and reproduced by Peggy van Praagh in 1964. However, while the venue was nostalgic, the company’s brilliant dance prowess showed the future is here.

From start-to-end of the three-act production, the lead performers and the supporting cast were on fire. In act one, we meet village girl Swanilda (Ako Kondo) and her fiancé Franz (Chengwu Guo), who is mesmerised by a beautiful girl, Coppelia (Aya Watanabe), sitting in the window of Dr. Coppelius’s (Andrew Killian) mysterious house. Jealous, Swanilda drags her friends inside to find her. They discover a Willy Wonka-type world of toys that spring to life, and see that Coppelia is in fact a doll.

It’s all frivolity until Franz appears and the angry doctor traps him in a desperate attempt to steal his soul for Coppelia. Meanwhile, Swanilda dresses in Coppelia’s clothes and tricks the doctor into thinking his plot worked. When he learns the truth, his loneliness and heartbreak is intense. In a moment of empathy, Swanilda sees his pain, but Franz is not open to second chances, and they move on to prepare for their wedding – the uplifting extravaganza of act three.

Thanks to perfectly nuanced acting by the lead dancers, these stages of comedy, drama and delight are portrayed with a relatable sense of humanity.

From the moment Guo appeared, he demanded attention, performing tremendous leaps in which he was suspended in the air, and multiple turns that held time still.

Chengwu Guo and Australian Ballet artists. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kondo was equally delightful, displaying the fast, intricate footwork, classical upper body carriage, and mix of cheeky and compassionate character traits that the role requires.

Killian captured the hope, desperation and devastation of Dr. Coppelius, while in calm contrast Robyn Hendricks as ‘Prayer’ glided through a stunning, arabesque-filled solo. Village scenes filled with peasants and traditional folk dances were faultlessly executed.

The music by Delibes, and the set and costumes designed by Kristian Fredriksen, were striking. From the autumnal colours of act one, to the deeper jewel tones in act two and the white wedding shades of act three, each scene was visually gorgeous.

A downside of the Palais smaller stage o the State Theatre at the Arts Centre, Melbourne is that it looked too restrictive for the athletic leaps of Guo, the fast-traveling moves of Kondo and the fullness of the group scenes. But for the audience members stepping out of their comfort zone to celebrate a piece of the company’s past, they should have travelled home on the tram satiated.

[box]Coppelia is at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda until October 1 and at the Sydney Opera House from December 2-21. Main image: Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Chengwu Guo. Photo: Jeff Busby.[/box]

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