DANCE / In flattering light: Judith Mackrell on Delibes' Coppelia performed by London City Ballet, the underdog of British dance, at Sadler's Wells

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There's always a danger with Coppelia that the ballet might hijack itself with its own charm. With its dancing dolls and pert lovers, its mood of unclouded optimism and its high jinks and happy-ending storyline, it could easily seem unsufferably cute. But Delibes' sweetly danceable score beguiles you every time you hear it, and the plot whisks along effortlessly on the back of non-stop vivacious dance. It's a work to flatter most dance companies, and certainly London City Ballet look good in their own new production.

LCB have themselves often come close to being hijacked by lack of funds. Operating for years without a secure Arts Council grant, they've become the brave underdog of British ballet - touring classics-on-a-shoestring to theatres that other companies ignore. It's often seemed a miracle that they could ever stage anything new. But with Coppelia tightness of budget often works to their advantage. There's no distracting fuss to Peter Farmer's traditional story-book designs. And in Act 2 (staged by Jack Carter), where Dr Coppelius navely tries to extract the 'life force' from the hero, Franz, in order to animate his own beautiful clockwork doll, the simplicity of means is exemplary. Instead of wiring Franz up to the usual cumbersome joke machine, Coppelius consults a book of spells and with graphic mime tries to conjure his results out of thin air. The story loses nothing, and Coppelius is made to seem even more gullible than usual.

The rest of the staging also works well. Cecilia Barrett's handling of Acts 2 and 3 is bright and fresh and in sympathy with what we think we know about St Leon's original. And, in the best tradition of British underdogs, the dancers perform with a cheery and likeable zest. Of course you don't get world class performances from a company this small, and the killer solos, 'Dawn' and 'Prayer' in Act 3 cruelly exposed a couple of the dancers' nerves on Monday night. Roger van Fleteren as Franz also looked weak of foot and leg in his own bravura solo. But he had all the boyish good looks and mischief that the role demands, and certainly seemed a good catch for Swanhilda - danced by Tracey Newham Alvey.

Other Swanhildas have discovered surprising emotional complexities in the role, complexities that Newham Alvey doesn't attempt to investigate. There aren't many changes of key in either her acting or her dancing. But there is as much confidence, attack and pleasure as you could ask for, and the character's charm and spirit never flag.

The rest of the company also look as if they are having a genuinely good time. None of them, sensibly, have been told to aim for over-tended virtuosity. They dance within their own limits, which means that they can think intelligently about the detail of the choreography, the music and the drama. What we get is a Coppelia that not only honours the ballet but is open-handedly generous in entertaining the audience.

At Sadler's Wells, London EC1 to 25 June. Box office: 071-278 8916

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