Coppelia 2017 (Act I) – Singapore Dance Theatre

coppelia cover

(Nakahama Akira plays Coppelia in the promotional materials and cover of the pamphlet. Photo was not cropped, oh dear! Taken at the Esplanade).

Updated: to include last part on the return of Doctor Coppelius.

I first saw Coppelia live in 2013 — Uchida Chihiro and Nakamura Kenya. I had hoped, for years, to be able to watch it live (ever since The Australian Ballet advert appeared in the papers — you can google when that was), and so it was a dream come true for me. (Prior to that, I had watched the Leanne Benjamin-Carlos Acosta DVD — $10 from the green shop in Bras Basah complex.)

Following the rules of large cinemas (don’t buy row E and below), back then, I had bought (I think) Row F, G or H – something adequately near to the stage and to the audience’s left. This time, I sat further back, which meant that what I saw didn’t gel with the close-up images in my memory (e.g. Franz, larger than life, being fooled by Doctor Coppelius).

When I first saw Coppelia, my overwhelming reaction was: very fun, light, frothy stuff, without the heavy stuff and music that anchors the likes of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, et cetera. (Yet, years later, I found myself humming a bit of music that turned out to be the waltz.) Also, I recalled having a ball of a time and loving the scene with the dancing dolls; and I also enjoyed watching Kenya’s Franz ham it up in 2013. But I just couldn’t quite recall the music … even after the first show I saw this year.

But more viewings reminded me that there are so many moving parts to this ballet; and now, when I play the opening piece, I recall that wonderful sense of anticipation as the audience watched the curtain. And I remember all the good stuff, and that the music was pleasant — the Mazurkas, the crowd dance, the moving second Act. Yep.

 

 

The beautiful curtain. Lookit! Sets the mood for us.
“Where is Coppelia set?” asked a friend. A fictitious country, that’s where.

coppelia curtain

For kicks, here’s the 2013 pamphlet, including the write-up. Found it (and a Starbucks card) while cleaning the house for the new year. Hard work is its own reward.

coppelia 2013 cover

(You can see Nazer on the far left; and that’s Chihiro in the centre.)

coppelia 2013 synopsis

(Kenya and Chihiro)

coppelia 2013 cast

This was so long ago that the Apprentices included (of more recent Artists): Beatrice Castenada, Huo Liang, Kwok Min Yi and Lisha Chin. And now you can lookit the cast list of 2017.

coppelia 2017 cast

This opens in a town square (big town clock at the back, and benches and lamps, and a house on either side, plus a small building to the back) with two youths (Huo Liang and Takeaki Miura) harassing the elderly Doctor Coppelius (Artistic Director Mr Janek Schergen). They’re just having a bit of fun, in their opinion — just buzzing about him and muddling his head — but he gets away and into his house, which is to the audience’s right. This allows us to notice him and recognise his house. Quite possibly, he pops up and brings Coppelia to the window at around this moment.

The youths then go to the bench at the back (more towards the right) where four garlands for an unnamed festival have been waiting patiently. Takeaki Miura hands one to Huo Liang and slides the rest over his arm. Huo Liang, tasked with hanging the garlands, begins with the area under the town clock. Unfortunately, he’s not got an eye for the task, and starts way too far left of the clock, and his friend has to keep gesturing to him to move the garland along (sometimes he moves too far right then, or continues being off-center, causing his friend to smack his forehead in exasperated disbelief: how can anyone not know where centre is). Then it’s fixed, and Huo Liang hammers and nails it in. Then the lamp-post (too high, just right).

Then the small building on the left, to the back. Huo Liang starts to hammer a garland onto one of the pillars. Turns out it’s the local tavern + inn, and the noise (or shaking foundations?) draws out the irate innkeeper, Timothy Ng, and his assistant, Jeremie Gan. I expect they explain the festival to the innkeeper, because he grudgingly heads back in — but not before touching the lamp (or doorway?) outside the inn with his finger and noting that it’s still dusty — and glaring at his assistant, who gives the lamp a perfunctory whack (not even a wipe-down) with the towel around his neck and follows him back into the inn.

Last stop: the house to the left, Coppelia’s house. This is when the Valse (Waltz) from Coppelia plays. Coppelia emerges before they can nail the garland to the door.  I did think that in a performance, they managed to prop it up just before she emerged, but of course — it was upside down, so it had to be set right side up. But there was another performance where Coppelia (Chihiro) emerged before the garland was set up, and she agreed to putting the garland on the door.

This is the version that closest approximates, I think, the one that I heard. Okay, so I only listened to 2 versions before this, and one was the digital type.

Coppelia and the 2 men hold hands and dance round in a circle — ring a ring of roses; a sort of light-hearted, spring-flower moment. Remember, these are young folk and she is a carefree girl — lilies of the field.

Somewhere in this dance, our –and Swanilda’s — eye falls on Coppelia. I can’t recall how this works — I think that earlier on, Doctor Coppelius opens the windows, revealing Coppelia. I can’t remember if it’s the men who point out Coppelia to Swanilda. From 1:11 onwards (to 1:28?), Swanilda invites Coppelia down to dance with her, with little delicate trills of her feet, and pointing down at the ground quite obviously (which, in miming, according to the internet, means… a command? If so, what does this say about Swanilda?). I’m looking at Coppelia 1990 by the Australian Ballet as well, to help me recall. I frankly cannot recall exact moves, but this passes pleasantly and prettily.

From 2:48 onwards there’s a really unexpected part, where Swanilda goes right up under Coppelia’s window (with really rapid kicking movements that match the notes in the music) — she is quite agitated by now, probably because she is not used to being ignored (because she is the prettiest girl in the village and the ringleader of the pack) — I think she is asking why Coppelia won’t come down to play. This ends with her actually commanding Coppelia to come down, then stamping her foot, and losing her temper (the miming being sort of shaking both fists in the air as if drumming a beat against a door). And then doing a sulky series of pirouettes which end with a pose in which she flings her arms up to the side as if pushing Coppelia away; and she refuses to look at Coppelia, rejecting her. Fine, if you won’t play with me, I won’t care about you either! and See if I care! etc. It’s massively comically dramatic, and I didn’t expect that Swanilda would be childish or that she’d actually do something so obvious and familiar to anyone who’s been through the “don’t friend you” phase (before facebook..long before facebook..).

All I remember of what happens next is that Swanilda goes back into her house.

Have a look at her dress, in the centre, below. That’s Coppelia’s dress to the left. I suppose that’s Franz’s on the right. Pretty, isn’t it? Makes one think of, I dunno, a Tyrolean maiden, I suppose.

coppeliadoll-village-male

Franz makes an entrance, a bouquet of flowers in hand, all ready to declare his love for Swanilda. But lo, here are the same 2 chaps from the opening of the ballet, being the ultimate trolls friends. When they figure out where he’s going, they point out Coppelia to him. Franz is taken by her beauty, (passes the flowers to his friends?) and introduces himself to her, going down on one knee, etc. But she ignores him and continues reading. Now he’s taken aback by her aloofness. His friends, in the meantime, now have the bouquet, and in the background, they pretend to be the Franz and Swanilda love show — Huo Liang as the smitten Franz on one knee, proclaiming his love for Swanilda; Takeaki Miura as the lovestruck Swanilda, blown away by his flowers and love, and, in one great, fabulous grandiose leap, making his way to his beloved; and Takeaki-Swanilda sits upon Huo Liang’s knee and they make exaggerated kissy faces at each other. Franz, suddenly aware that his friends are making fun of him, shoves them apart so that they fall to the ground; and his friends troll him by now reminding him that he was supposed to visit Swanilda, not chase Coppelia.

But then suddenly, Coppelia gets to her feet! Doll-like (but realistically enough to the trio), she looks up, blows a kiss at them, and settles back down again with a little sproing back and forth — not that the guys on the ground notice, because now they’re all abuzz about how the new belle in town has just hailed them. They don’t notice that Doctor Coppelius has (I think) pushed Coppelia and her chair aside, and when the 2 friends finally try to push Franz forward. Franz approaches in a friendly fashion but he and his friends fall back in shock when they see that Doctor Coppelius is staring down at Franz . Doctor Coppelius yells at him and he runs off.

Doctor Coppelius then beckons to the 2 friends, and they approach eagerly, but he then snaps at them and chases them away: dream on!

Next up: the scene fills with other folk, the village couples, her friends–and then in enters Swanilda from our left, eyes following an invisible butterfly as it flutters in high above her head — and she tries to catch it and fails, and then in enters Franz from our right, and together, they manage to cup their hands over it when it lands on the ground. Franz’s hands first, and hers over his, their folded hands rising and falling in fluttery beats as if the butterfly is trying to escape while she smiles (and makes eyes?) at him. In this, Li Jie makes a sort of sweet, coy Swanilda while Chihiro plays a cute, chirpy and mischievous Swanilda.

Franz sweeps the butterfly into his folded hands and stands in a corner to admire it. Swanilda longs to see it, so he holds it up in his hand: isn’t it lovely? isn’t it wonderful?

And she is pleased, and all is good.

And then Franz puts it to his chest, proudly produces a pin from his pocket (oh, the alliteration!) and then pins the lovely creature to his chest, thereby stabbing it to death.

Eeeks! Swanilda buries her face in her hands. What a heartless, heartless man! She will have nothing to do with him. Franz, taken aback by her sudden change of heart, rips the butterfly from his chest and tosses it aside (!!), and tries to woo her, but she has gone to seek comfort and counsel from her friends, who all commiserate and agree with her that he’s the most horrid, black-hearted fellow ever, et cetera. Franz retrieves his bouquet of flowers from a quick-thinking friend, and presents them to Swanilda. Swanilda pretends to be impressed and pleased, and just as Franz feels relieved that he has saved the day, Swanilda flings the flowers to the ground and turns her back on him.

When Franz tries to explain himself to Swanilda, her friends take turns telling him off – Nanase is a stern friend, and Bi Ru plays the spirited, pugnacious friend who stamps her foot and sticks out her tongue at him — and who has to be dragged away by a wiser, calmer friend (Sun Hong Lei/Elaine Heng on alternating performances?) while Swanilda disappears into the house, followed by her coterie of friends.

But all’s swell for now, because in enter the Lead Czardas and they lead the Mazurka.

This sounds like a good time to watch the 2013 video from One @ The Ballet. You can see some of the scenes here, with Chihiro as Swanilda, Kenya as Franz, Zhao Jun and Etienne playing the roles that Huo Liang and Takeaki Miura play now; and May Yen Cheah and Chen Peng as the lead Czardas. Ahhh, names I’ve not typed for a while.

 

(For the interested: the butterfly looks like it’s made of paper, and it’s actually held in Franz’s hand as he swoops in to ‘catch’ it. Something else from One @ The Ballet — Mr Schergen said, as they were going to show us this scene with Li Jie and Nazer: “Let’s play the music, so it feels more real.” That was an interesting comment.)

The Mazurka! Swoon-worthy music and choreography.

The choreography and costumes are more like those from Coppelia 1990 by Australian Ballet, on youtube.

Group dancing is always fun. Everyone in pairs, in columns: there are the little kicks of the right foot while the left hand goes up behind the ear so that the elbow sticks up and out and the dancers swirl; and the sliding moves with arms folded parallel and hands balled in fists. The holding of partners round the waists and whirling round, the knock-kneed dance, the men kicking and jumping and actually appearing to almost squat in mid-air. At 1:43, the lead Czardas (May Yen Cheah + Etienne Ferrere for Chihiro’s shows; Elaine Heng + Yorozu Kensuke for Li Jie’s shows) have a little piece by themselves — 2 phrases of music, in particular, end on a triumphant note: first one in pirouettes (I think) and then a pose; and second, a swooping fish-dive.

If you watch the Royal Ballet one on youtube, one difference for the SDT version is that the couples face each other for the majority of the moves. Hardly ever are they facing the same direction, i.e. away from each other.

(Looking at the couples in the booklet – I thought Reece Hudson danced with Sun Hong Lei/Tamana Watanabe; and Shan Del Vecchio ..did not? Did Suzuki Mai dance with Justin Zee and Minegishi Kana with Takeaki Miura? Did Ruth Austin dance with Tony Shi Yue and did Yeo Chan Yee dance with Peter Allen/ Jerry Wan? Or am I recalling the ears of corn dance?)  Also, this is our first time seeing Justin Zee dance, and he is very good (says the layman eye). Shan Del Vecchio is, too.

At parts of the music which sound stronger (a general hint that it’s a men-only portion), the men all leap into the air and do little beats with their feet, and do jumping spins, and they’re all good.

I’ll tell you one thing I think was in the Mazurka, which I didn’t see on tape — it’s when arms are in third position (one overhead, one to the side, so gracefully) and the corresponding leg bent (plie) and the other outstretched to the side, toe on the ground (tendu) respectively. And then they turn round quickly in the same pose, like they’re skating, and the ladies’ skirts whirl and it looks so very different from other moves because they’re not on their toes for this.

When those are over, we hear a bell and see that some people are pulling/pushing in a large bell mounted within a frame. Even the innkeeper and his assistant pop out to have a look. The Burgermeister (Ballet Master Mohamed Noor Sarman) enters and announces that there will be a Festival of the Bells and those who marry that day will receive a sum of money. That sounds like good news to Franz, who proposes that he and Swanilda marry. Swanilda refuses, but is persuaded to join hands with him and stand before the Burgermeister – but at the last moment, she demurs again and runs off to join her friends.

In the meantime, someone produces an ear of corn and it’s announced that if one shakes it and hears a rattling, one’s beloved is true of heart or something of that sort. Or is true to one. I remember being properly baffled by this the first time I watched it.

Swanilda shakes it eagerly and thinks she hears something. Right? Her friends, e.g. Nanase, don’t quite look convinced, and don’t quite know how to tell her that, but she’s already moved on to her friends on the other side of the stage e.g. Chua Bi Ru. They look doubtful or even disbelieving, but she doesn’t seem to notice that.

Now comes the Waltz of the Corn.

Swanilda holds an ear of corn. The rest don’t. A dance of couples, very slow and deliberate. Things like holding the girls by one hand or the waist while they do almost a full 180 arabesque as they lean down gracefully as if to allow an invisible ear of corn in their hand to gently brush the floor; and then they return to normal arabesque later and raise their hands high, as if to hold the corn up to the light. Highly impressive dance because it has all those difficult-looking things like men holding the girls by the hands while the girls pose with one leg raised in front in attitude (bent) and then changing poses like that. Pirouettes where the girls are spinning round while holding on, overhead, to only one of their partners’ hands. And ladies lifted to sit on their partners’ shoulders.

The dance being over, Swanilda shakes the ear of corn. In the dead silence, she hears … nothing. Omg. She’s already had her faith in humanity Franz tested once, and now she is shattered, and she dashes offstage. Franz shakes the ear of corn and he hears a rattling sound and realizes (again! short-lived, though) that she is totally worth his while, and he races off after her. I wish he didn’t look so outrageously happy to hear the rattling sound, though. I thought he should look kind of surprised, then paiseh (embarrassed) that he’s been such a fool. Hahaha. But I suppose we must remember that he’s still young and foolish – he isn’t going to repent so easily! – and that’s why we have the whole scene in Doctor Coppelius’s house.

The giant bell on the frame has vanished. I always noticed it rolling in, but never rolling out.

Time for the friends to dance. ETA: Music.

Look at their names: Elaine Heng/Sun Hong Lei, Marina, Kowk Min Yi, Bi Ru, Nakahama “Cupid” Akira, and Tanaka Nanase. This Coppelia has seen Sun Hong Lei in more major roles, including a gorgeous solo as Prayer, and I am glad about that. These friends are fun to watch, because they have different styles, and they get to dance quite bombastic stuff, especially when they burst across the stage in pairs and then swap. May Yen Cheah and Nanase doing spins that end with a whirling leg kicking up, Nanase’s like a piston. Bi Ru and Sun Hong Lei/Elaine Heng doing quick moves and jumps across the stage. Yatsushiro Marina and Akira doing gorgeous high sharp kicks, their eyes following the trajectory.

Then Swanilda runs in from the right side (from audience’s perspective, of course) and you’re like…wait, I thought you were heartbroken. The internet says Franz cheers her up by convincing her that he truly loves her (offstage?). Here, it’s the music and dancing by her friends that cheer her up, of course. You can always count on your closest friends to lift your spirits.

Swanilda! Feet crossed in tight fifth position, feet zipping out en pointe so her legs and the ground form a little triangle, then zipping back in, then out again, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Oh, and progressing across the stage in a diagonal through a series of little leaps, legs parallel and feet beating together. You know these leaps from Kitri, I think, when the body is arced slightly so that the dancer can see her feet before her, and she’s only slightly elevated. It looks like a difficult and delicate operation, as if the dancer may tip over at any second.

I can’t recall at which point (I think it was in the doll’s room, really, when Li Jie gathered her friends round and they decided to have some fun and dance along with the dolls) that I realized that Swanilda is the prettiest girl, and she knows it, and that’s partly why she is their ringleader. Not that her looks elevate her per se, but that she is just the life of the party and just happens to be the prettiest, and she dances like it’s as easy as breathing, in this part. So she gets to dance front and centre.

No, who am I kidding. It’s like this because it’s a ballet. But you see, everyone else gets centrestage because they’re the princess, or the one in love (Juliet). She’s the main character.

Now we go to (I think) the pairs mixing and matching: Marina and Bi Ru, arms akimbo, one leg in attitude at the back (raised bent leg) and then they plie and go up en pointe. Then another step forward and repeat. Very quickly, like nodding mandarin ducks. Ah, I can’t remember it all. But everyone has their day heading across the stage at a bracing pace, almost as if it’s a finale, and then I think Swanilda joins them at the very end.

Next, the Lead Czardas stroll in. Elaine Heng as the strong, gracious lady Lead Czarda, accompanied by the ever-efficient Kensuke.

May Yen Cheah and Etienne Ferrere make for a vivacious, proud pair. You know – when the lady tucks her hand in his arm and they smoothly roll out the leg very slowly, very proudly, as they advance. There’s no hurry, nowhere else you should be going – they are the main attraction, and they know it.

At one point in time during the merry-making (now??), a loud chiming is heard, and there is an explosion and a blast of light, and Doctor Coppelius’s windows fly open, white smoke pouring out. Doctor Coppelius appears, coughing, and – crucially – he leaves the windows open. Everyone stares at him, he stares back at the void, and then he vanishes.

This is extremely dramatic, but also a tad ominous, and that helps change the tone slightly as the merry-makers return home for the day.

Except for that irrepressible youth played by Huo Liang, who peers round Doctor Coppelius’s house, and then exaggeratedly makes his way round it, back to it, feeling his way with his hands. Then we have Justin Zee, and Huo Liang (again), Takeaki Miura, peeking round the house – and Jason Carter as the last, clumsy, fellow, who either leans on someone’s shoulders and falls over, or who simply misses and falls, and has to be dragged away in case Doctor Coppelius hears (or, once, somehow manages to exit on someone’s back in a hurry).

Franz appears with a ladder. After all, the window is open! Ah, but there’s a sound – and he hides.

Twilight sees Doctor Coppelius emerging from his house. Gracious, but it’s cold, and he’s forgotten his scarf. Back in he goes, and he wraps his scarf round his throat. Oh – he pats the top of his head – now he’s forgotten his hat. Back in, and out again. (“There are two requirements to be Doctor Coppelius. You must be old – check – and you must not be afraid to make a fool of yourself – check,” in the words of Mr Janek Schergen.) He locks the door and then makes sure we can all see him wrapping it up in his white hanky.

Out he goes, but he runs into Shi Yue Tony, who blocks his way. Then a bunch of youths (including the 4 seen earlier) pop up to harass him and bump into him, and Reece Hudson’s character mocks him (let’s dance), so two of the youths hoist the terrified old man high up into the air. Finally, the last of the youths (Jason Carter) turns Doctor Coppelius round and round so he gets giddy, and then the youth runs off in a hurry.

Poor, harried Doctor Coppelius! He wipes his brow with his kerchief, and his key drops with a clang, but he doesn’t notice. The innkeeper, having heard the commotion, heads out with his assistant, and Doctor Coppelius explains that 8 youths punched and kicked him. Come in and have a drink, says the innkeeper; Two, says Doctor Coppelius; All right, two, says the innkeeper, and they all head back into the inn.

Swanilda’s door opens, and she and her friends file out. Akira finds the key, and of course Swanilda, the chief mischief-maker, realises it’s for Doctor Coppelius’s house, and decides that they should all sneak in to explore it. #whatpeopledidbeforeyoutubeandnetflix

So they do, but there’s one terrified lass who always has the audience in stitches (Kwok Min Yi), who shivers, whose knees are knocking (is it the pugnacious character played by Bi Ru, or Swanilda, who makes fun of that), and who remains rooted to the spot. There’s always that one good-natured friend (Elaine Heng/Sun Hong Lei) who tries to persuade her to go in, until someone (either Swanilda or pugnacious friend) gives her a shove and she flies forward with a graceful leap, and dashes in.  Good-natured friend is the last to enter and she makes the sign of the cross before going in.

Doctor Coppelius exits from the inn, drunk and all, using a cane to feel his way. Is he searching for his key with his lantern? I think so. Anyway, he wanders into his house as the girls have left the door open. Then he exits: Wait, how did I get into my house without opening the door? There must be intruders! All worked up now, he readies himself with his cane, almost like it’s a sword, and rushes into the house.

All’s quiet after that, so Franz reappears. No one in sight! He hath his ladder with him, and he props it up against the window sill, and in amusing, comical slow-mo, carefully begins his ascent.

The curtains go down.

But it’s not time for a break. Only for a scene change.

Kudos to the folks behind the scenes, who have what feels like barely five minutes to change everything.

Okay, that’s all for now. Next Friday, a new episode of Riverdale beckons. It has a lot of problems – especially on representation for people of colour –  but it’s curiously engrossing and such a guilty pleasure. Just started on Samurai Gourmet too, on a friend’s suggestion; and I definitely have to watch the Chef’s Table episodes. I always find the female chefs’ episodes exceptionally fascinating – loads of explanations of why they do what they do, and lots of talk about food. (I haven’t watched any male chef episodes from Season 2, so I shall have a look. Soon. After I check out the one about the Korean nun that everyone has been raving about.)

 

 

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