Latvian National Ballet: Coppélia, St David's Hall, Cardiff

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The Independent Culture

It was Eta Hoffmann, composer, novelist, short-story writer, Beethoven's champion and Schumann's favourite writer, who pilfered a buried folk-tale and his own imagination to come up with The Sandman, his story of Dr Coppélius, the sinister inventor whose harebrained schemes include the idealised dancing doll of Delibes' ballet Coppélia and Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann.

Both have become firm favourites, although Coppélia is honoured by balletomanes even more than Offenbach's extravaganza among opera lovers. Neither is plot-perfect; indeed, Delibes takes rather too long to get under way, dwelling too long on slightly sanitised village bonhomie before the heroine - an inquisitive burgomaster's daughter - breaks into Coppélius's studio with her friends to garrotte the doll her boy has fallen for and check out this purveyor of Pinocchios.

Initially, there seemed a bit too much of the maypole in 46-year-old artistic director Aivars Leimanis's choreographing in its highly presentable current touring staging. Yet near the end his company joined in a finely wrought ensemble that yielded a structured dance sequence of real Tchaikovskian quality. The Riga-based orchestra, under the thoughtful baton of the sensitive, youngish conductor Farhads Stade, put scarcely a foot wrong. There was a little too much legato in the early gallivantings; but the first, dryish clarinet and flute whispers were super - and remained so. His lower strings brought insights; his violins, attractive clarity. Given today's often reduced ballet orchestras, this band - ample brass and percussion included - sounded full-blooded.

Leimanis has been with the company for 15 years: to his credit, he's amassed some gorgeous talent. The one performer head-and-shoulders above all else here was ballerina Margarita Demjanoka, sharing Swanilda with Julija Gurvica. Demjanoka is a beautiful executant, near-unfaultable, with youth on her side and a joyously warm personality. Every tiny thought-through tiptoe, sidesway and pirouette was subtle and polished. Partnered by Pavel Vasilchenko, she gave a performance that positively radiated and gleamed.

Even Riga's two-dimensional Galician village set was full of interest. If Ignats Ancans' Coppélius might have been more varied (and Zane Teikmane's Coppélia, too), Franz's friends (Raimonds Martinovs and Zigmars Kirilko) both looked like dancers with a future, and the two vagabonds (Intars Kelinhofs and Kirils Burlovs) won hearts from the outset with their impish slickness. Agnese Andersone's twee Scottish doll - Highland dancing à la Delibes - enchanted. None of the girls were as deft as Demjanoka; yet all were good, although a couple of foursomes looked just out of kilter. Still, an attractive, well-conceived Christmas Coppélia for Cardiff, by a Baltic ballet company well worth looking out for.