DANCE / Swanilda steals the night of the living doll

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The Independent Culture
FRANKENSTEIN tried it, Ceppetto tried it and the creator of Edward Scissorhands tried it. Against all the odds, there is always somebody, at least in fiction, prepared to have another shot, though only Cliff Richard ever claimed actually to have got himself a living doll. Coppelia is another story of heroic failure in the field, and the Australian Ballet are in London with their version.

Their magician, Doctor Coppelius, is performed with agreeably Faginesque malevolence by the company's veteran founder- member, Colin Peasey. He has a gripping idea for conquering the main problem: how to breathe life into his gorgeous dummy. He captures a boy who thinks he fancies her, knocks him out with a soporific potion, straps him to a runic wheel and attempts to spin his soul out of him. For a moment or two, the spiritual transplant seems to work and the doll springs into action. But, like Pinocchio, this doll is imperfect; she immediately displays all the wilful, sulky tantrums of a full-blown adolescent, and when she proves to be an imposter, a real girl who loves (goodness knows why) the unfaithful wimp on the wheel, there is some relief in the tears shed by the old doll-maker over his original and still inanimate template. Lifeless she may be, but at least she is manageable.

Coppelia is based on one of the Tales of Hoffmann. First performed in Paris to choreography by Saint-Leon, it has since been tinkered with by Petipa, Cecchetti and Peggy van Praagh. Not surprisingly, given such an ethnically eclectic pedigree, this production has a never-never Ruritanian setting. The village where, as usual, it is harvest time (when do they ever get round to sowing and ploughing in Ruritania?), looks Bavarian with its heavily carved buildings, but its top brass apparently includes a French abbe, the Mad Hatter, Tudor courtiers and a governess in crinoline and poke-bonnet. The dances, too, show a lofty contemporary disregard for geographical boundaries, as the Russian csardas leads into bold attempts at flamenco and the Highland fling. But the score is pure Delibes, so joyous and danceable it is hard to sit still and listen.

On Tuesday night, the orchestra went lickety-split through the first big mazurka, leaving the corps looking a little panicky, and taking the edge off the splendour of the rhythms. But they settled down, and well before the last 'Waltz of the Hours', everybody was satisfactorily synchronised. This was particularly effective in Dr Coppelius's sepulchral baroque workshop, lit only by sinister pairs of eyes and inhabited, like Madame Tussaud's, by an unnerving combination of artefacts, people peering at artefacts and people pretending to be artefacts. The ingenious balletic automata included a knight on horseback swinging a dangerous sabre, a headless nobleman, and a very fine, round and beaming mandarin. This fellow's mechanical grip, activated by a tug on his pompom, effectively trapped several wayward snoopers with the precision timing of farce: every home should have one. An unfinished tailor's dummy, faceless, boneless and roughly cobbled together with tacking, proved to be a real person, none other than the company's talented young choreographer Stanton Welch, doubling as the floppiest rag doll ever.

The Australian Ballet are enjoying their thirtieth birthday and they have reason to celebrate. No longer relying on foreign guest artists, their home-grown performers have an invigorating air of confidence and style. For this much-heralded London season, they are presenting three programmes: tomorrow, Giselle; later, a triple bill which includes Welch's tribute to his mother, Of Blessed Memory, before Coppelia returns to finish the season as it began. At the end of Coppelia, in keeping with the cheerfully heterogeneous ambience, weddings are celebrated by a vested priest, helped by the god Hymen (an anxious-looking winged child, cautiously bearing aloft either the Olympic flame or a huge ice- cream). For good measure, they are joined by Dawn and Prayer, exquisitely danced by Jayne Beddoe and Lisa Bolte. But the star is Miranda Coney who danced Swanilda magnificently. There seemed to be nothing she could not do, from petulant rage when Franz moons off after the doll, to meticulous articulation when mimicking said doll, to the dazzling pyrotechnics of her wedding pirouettes. Franz never deserved such luck.

The Australian Ballet, at the Coliseum (071-836 3161) until Saturday.