Tag Archives: ballet

Why Coppelia is a great ballet: #4 – Leo Delibes

The composer of Coppelia, Leo Delibes was one of the first composers to write good music for ballet. Prior to Delibes, ballet music was like wallpaper, useful for keeping dancers in time and making the atmosphere nice. But along came Delibes, and now we have fantastic ballet music. Yeah!

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The music in Coppelia is indescribably expressive and beautiful. Before the dancing even begins, the audience is treated to an overture – a taste of all the best bits of Delibes score before we get distracted by the dancing. The overture was one of the best parts of the ballet! It begins with a quiet soli for horns before it swells up with the strings and wind… oh my heart! – and then it bursts into the muzurka movement with all the excitement of all the brass!

Throughout the whole ballet Delibes uses his brass perfectly. There are beautiful passages for them and they are always used the best they could be to add to the narrative. In fact, all the music adds perfectly to the narrative – but without being enslaved to the narrative. This is music that can exist on its own, it can be enjoyed without any dancing at all! The highlight for me was the theme and variations in the first act. It was a beautiful piece of choreography – a graceful yet fun dance off between Swanilda and her friends. But the music itself was so good you could have closed the curtains on the dancers and still enjoyed it.

Delibes went on to write lots more amazing music, including other ballet music. In fact, he was a massive influence on a whole heap of other ballet composers who wanted their music to be more than wallpaper. I’ll always like the score for Coppelia best, but Tchaikovsky would disagree. Delibes’ score for the ballet Sylvia moved him so much that he wrote openly about how it was better than any of Tchaikovsky’s own works!

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Why Coppelia is a great ballet: #2 – Insights into creative power

Now that we’ve got the synopsis and some historical context of this ballet, I’d like to draw attention to a particular theme that I appreciated in Coppelia: creative power.

If you’ve been following this series so far, you will be aware of how the plot of Coppelia climaxes in act 2, with a test of the magician’s creative power. Can he really cause a doll to come to life? He thinks so, but it all turns out to be a hoax. Act 2 ends with the failed magician crumpled on the floor. He doesn’t have the power he thought he had to create life.

But there are bigger insights into creative power going on. Framing act two are acts one and three: celebrations of the harvest festival. Inside the magician’s workshop, we see the failure of humans to cerate life. But outside, in the town centre, are ongoing celebrations of life. As Swanilda and Franz disappear into the church to be married, the town erupts with dancing. First there is a dance of hours, twelve women dancing to represent the passage of time. They are followed by a single ballerina, the dawn, representing the sun. Finally another ballerina emerges. She is prayer, representing God in all of this. Coppelia emphasises that these three factors are necessary for a successful harvest – God, the sun and the passing of time.

Here is a bigger kind of creative power. Where Dr Coppelius fails, God and his creation succeed, and continue to succeed with every year and every harvest.

Why Coppelia is a great ballet: #1 – Subverting Romance

Throughout the 1800s new inventions had brought endless possibilities to ballet. Gas lighting allowed for bright lighting on the stage alone, plunging audiences into darkness and creating an illusion of depth. Improvements in pointe shoes allowed women to do much more difficult technical work with their feet, and for female dancers to spend most of the time hovering around on pointe. The perfection of machines such as winches and trapdoors created ample opprtunity for supernatural plot devices – dancers flying, sets moving and characters disappearing.

The combination of all these things led to a plethora of ballets in the 1800s, what are now referred to as the romantic ballets, including La Sylphide and Giselle. These ballets were went to town on magic and the supernatural, with ghosts, fairies and ethereal tutus.

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Fairies in the English National Ballet’s 2007 production of Giselle

Coppelia premiered in Paris in 1870. Like the ballets before it, Coppelia has its fair share of magic and stage tricks. The whole of the second act, set in the magician’s workshop, is centred on magic and the clever stage tricks used to make magician’s dummies come to life.

However unlike previous ballets, it turns out there is nothing magical going on at all! Coppelia does not come to life. The magician’s attempt to control human life fails – what he thinks is a supernatural achievement is merely Swanilda doing some good acting. By the end of act two of Coppelia, the romantic ideals of 19th century ballet are dismantled. The audience sees the stage tricks, the supernatual illusions are shattered. There are no fairies, ghosts or living dolls. There are just women dressed in beautiful tutus on dimly lit stages. Act two reveals to the audience both the amazing power that humans have to control the stage environment (the costuming and sets necessary to stage act two are brilliant!) as well as the obvious limits to human power in creating life itself.

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Swanilda and the magician, Dr Coppelius, in the Hong Kong ballet’s 2008 production of Coppelia

Coppelia is now regarded as one of the last romantic ballets, the end of the glorification of the supernatural in ballet. And the start of something else – maybe the grandfather of all other ballets featuring animated dolls – like the Nutcracker and Petrushka? Either way, it is definitely a milestone ballet!

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Coppelia has been my favourite ballet since I first saw it 2000. We saw it again last night – me, Matt, my mum, my sister, my aunty and my cousin. It was even better than it was last time.

I want to write about it all in one go, but there is too much to say, so here comes another series! I hope you enjoy my reflections on the best ballet ever.

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