Sunday, 2 November 2014

Coppelia in Oxford

The first time I saw Coppélia was when I was an undergraduate at St Andrews. It was London Festival's at the Coliseum in the late 1960s with Peter Schaufuss ("can't believe it's a real name" scoffed my companion Jean who was reading German at the time and is now a successful solicitor in Scotland) and the beautiful Dagmar Kessler.  It was one of the first ballets that I saw shortly after I got my own income in the form of a local authority grant and entrance scholarship and could afford to take myself off to the ballet and pay for my first ballet lessons. Delibes's music and the kaleidoscope of colour and movement with the gorgeous sets and costumes and the spectacular choreography impressed me like no other ballet before or since.

I saw that show shortly after I had made my first acquaintance with digital computers and the so-called Turing Test. I could not help reflecting on the modernity of the ballet's plot in a way that Saint-Léon and Delibes could never have imagined a century earlier when they first staged the work (see Laura Dodge Coppélia: An Insight), This was a discussion of man-machine interaction, one of the issues of artificial intelligence, a topic of moral philosophy which was compulsory for St Andrews undergraduates as well as something we addressed in our short course in the computer science lab.

Fast forward nearly half a century to the same company's performance of the same ballet (albeit under a different moniker) in another ancient university city and the work was still as fresh and appealing to me as it had been when I first saw it.  Instead of Schaufuss and Kessler I saw Yonah Acosta and Shiori Kase as Franz and Swanilda. Acosta is a virtuoso. Always a pleasure to watch. He wowed us with his magnificent turns and jumps particularly in the last act. His virtuosity I had seen before but last night he also showed his charm and his aptitude as an actor. He is fast winning my admiration in the way that only a handful dancers (one of whom is Carlos) have done. Kase was a lovely Swanilda: sweet, vulnerable (Franz's dalliance with a doll really hurt her), impetuous and in the end heroic as she struggled to release her fiancé from Dr Coppélius's clutches. The role could have been created for her.

There were strong performances from Michael Coleman as the mad scientist, Fabian Remair as the Burgermeister, Crystal Costa as Dawn, Lauretta Summerscales and Jung ah Choi (who was also the doll). Anjuli Hudson, Sarah Kundi (one of my favourite dancers as every reader of this blog knows) and Jennie Harringtom in the Dance of the Hours. The whole cast danced well - as one would expect from a company of this calibre - and it is almost invidious to single any of them out for special praise.

Earlier in the day I had the privilege of seeing this company including last night's cast in company class.  I didn't see it all because the traffic yesterday morning was appalling and I don't know Oxford as well as I thought I did. I knew there was an underground car park under the bus station but could I find it in the congestion? I had intended to take the park and ride service but the car parks on the ring road were full by the time I had arrived from Yorkshire. The class took place in the theatre with the scenery for the show on stage. I noticed travelling barres on stage but missed the barre work if indeed there had been any.

Company class was very familiar with the ballet mistress Hua Fang Zhang directing the dancers much in the way Fiona, Annemarie or Ailsa directs me. Some of the exercises were the same as ours though there were several (probably most) that I could never do in a month of Sundays. There was a pianist just as we have in Leeds playing some of the same music as in our exercises. The big difference was in the pace of the class and the fact that the professionals were getting the exercises right first time (or at least most of the time) which doesn't happen with us (or at any rate me).  I noticed how many of the dancers followed the ballet mistress's instructions with finger movements - a useful trick that I shall try - and their effort. They really work hard. I'm even more impressed with those dancers than I had been before.

Just before we left the auditorium we were treated to a rehearsal of the pas de deux in the first act by Kase and Acosta.  As he was in his practice clothes I could see the muscles of that man.  I marvelled at the way he held his precious cargo on his shoulder with his right arm almost casually around her. A precarious position one would have thought but Kase seemed as relaxed and comfortable as if she had been in her favourite arm chair. I've seen such lifts and holds countless times as a ballet goer but seeing it in rehearsal with the principals stripped of their costumes was nevertheless a revelation.

The show is moving on to Bristol now and I thoroughly recommend it.

Further Reading

3 Nov 2014  Sarah Kundi   Oxford: Sarah Kundi on Tour   ENB website

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