A real pudding

ENB's 'Coppelia' is a beautiful confection, both visually and stylistically, so why are the performances so lacklustre?

You could hear faint thumps through the curtain during the overture as English National Ballet's finest did a bit of last-minute rehearsing. This was leaving it a bit late and the company, possibly enervated by its long annual run of Nutcrackers, never really did justice to Ronald Hynd's lovely Coppelia.

My own disappointment that ENB's farewell to the Royal Festival Hall should be so lacklustre was hardly helped by the long memory sitting next to me who made my mouth water with tales of Fonteyn's Swanilda, Helpmann's Dr Coppelius and Constant Lambert's mastery of the baton. As it was, we had Daria Klimentova as our heroine, with Laurentiu Guinea as her fickle Franz and a lethargic Stephen Lade in the pit. Klimentova's advertised partner had been the former Royal Ballet porteur Zoltan Solymosi but niggling injuries have kept him out of action yet again. Solymosi hasn't been match- fit since he danced at the gala on 2 December. Sir Anthony Dowell was in the audience. Was he checking the progress of his former dancer or merely taking a private lesson in a work he intends one day to produce? The most valuable lesson to be learnt was that even the most charming production can be spoilt by half-hearted dancing.

Klimentova was an honourable exception and her steely feet and swift, unfaltering pirouettes were the highlight of the first act. But technique isn't enough on its own. Indeed, unless the dancer gives Swanilda's character a full measure of warmth and charm, there is a grave danger that her very facility will make her appear as robotic as her rival. Klimentova with her cross, pretty little face managed fine when trying to get the snooty Coppelia to acknowledge her but seemed too frigid and mechanical in the pas de deux. Mind you, to be fair, the frozen look on her face may simply have been one of blind terror in case Guinea dropped her.

Guinea's unconventional looks and obvious manner make him a better peasant than Prince but he needs to learn that it takes more than a few shrugs and moues to construct a charming and believable Franz. Klimentova is not his usual partner but that still doesn't account for the slapdash way he manhandled the poor woman. As a pair, they were devoid of any chemistry, with telegraphed mime and passionless embraces.

Desmond Heeley's sets - imagine the annual Ruritanian flower show and you're about there - are sometimes criticised for their high sugar content but Coppelia is supposed to be sweet. Hoffmann's Sandman it ain't, but anything that was true to that sinister source with its abnormal obsessions and enamel eyes would betray Delibes' sunny score. Not that the ballet is without emotional texture. Even in the cutesiest setting, the dark second act, in which the deranged inventor tries to bring his Galatea to life, can have something of power and pathos. Nureyev danced Dr Coppelius with the Cincinnati Ballet on a set that looked like a nasty accident with a box of Dolly Mixtures, yet the moment he discovered his living, breathing doll to be Swanilda in disguise was a bitter morsel in the softest of sweets.

To Sat. Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (booking: 0171-960 4242)

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