DANCE / Dolled up for Christmas in July: Judith Mackrell on the Australian Ballet's beguiling production of

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SUMMER often feels like the fag end of the ballet year. You spend hot evenings in stuffy theatres when everyone else is taking the night air, you pine for the scent of bustle and fresh beginnings that come with the start of autumn. The threat of ennui looms, too, because this summer every ballet company in London is wooing its holiday audience with the cosiest and most familiar works in the rep. Following hard on the heels of English National Ballet's unseasonal Cinderella, bringing snow and tinsel in late June, come two productions of Giselle (Berlin and Australian), two Coppelias (Australian and ENB) and two Romeo and Juliets (ENB and the Royal). It's true that the number of three- act ballets is limited, but someone somewhere might have ordered things more variously than this.

That said, the Australian Ballet's production of Coppelia is beguiling enough to charm away even a critic's grumps. It's the version mounted by Peggy Van Praagh which she originally learnt from the old Vic Wells production. The choreography is original Saint-Leon revised by Petipa and Cecchetti with some additions by Van Praagh, and that means that the evening is loaded with bright and vivacious classical dance. Coppelia is also, though, a story ballet from first to last; and Van Praagh has managed to sustain the plot so clearly and entertainingly that you never lose its thread among the steps.

The ballet's lovers, Swanilda and Franz, are both leaders of their own pack, and the group dances are all performed as part of an adolescent rite of conspiracy and confrontation. Swanilda spurs on her girls to perform fleet and testing phrases of dance (whipped along by the sparkle and dash of Delibes' score, too) and scornfully challenge the brash virtuosity of the boys. The girls also trade secrets and plot in whispers before agreeing to partner their lovers, and through all the quarrels and crossed connections that beset Franz and Swanilda's courtship each is doggedly supported by their own sex.

Franz himself is partly exonerated of the vanity and flirtatiousness that most productions make him guilty of. The first time he's tempted to betray Swanilda at the sight of the beautiful doll Coppelia, he's actually been put under some kind of spell by the doll's creator, Dr Coppelius. (In ENB's version, for instance, he's simply suffering from an over- gullible roving eye). Coppelius, too, is made a more powerful and convincing necromancer than the doddering old clown of some productions. Played by David Ashmole as a man obsessed by alchemy and by the beauty of his own female creation, the role has an element of truly convincing diabolism and real poignancy.

The creepiness surrounding Coppelius is intensified by the scene in his workshop where all his other dolls run sinister riot. A headless monarch, a taloned Chinaman, an acrobat who coils and flops with disconcerting rubberiness - all credibly terrorise Swanilda and her friends when they break into Coppelius's house. There are many other equally telling details that keep the story alive - but ultimately it's the lovers' ballet, and they who make or break it.

Greg Horsman as Franz is particularly pleasing, and his portrayal of a young man in love nicely unselfserving. He can pull out all the ardent stops when necessary, but he also shows Franz as a bit callow and boyishly mean enough to put down Swanilda's sillier notions. His dancing, too, is lovely, an easy graceful line that doesn't strain or bunch under virtuoso stress, legs and feet immaculately placed and stretched.

Lisa Pavane, Swanilda on Wednesday night, also has beautiful legs and feet - quick and delicate in the middle steps, bold and free in her jumps. She's occasionally a touch meagre in her phrasing, but her acting is all broad comic strokes and a genuine sense of fun. The rest of the company also dance as if they're having a collectively good time and that, at the bottom line, is what Coppelia is all about.

Further performances on 17-19 July, Coliseum, St Martin's Lane (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)