Queensland Ballet rolls back 150 years to deliver a re-energised classic

Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia breathes new life into a 150 year old classic.


Jun 10, 2024, updated Jun 10, 2024
Patricio Revé (Franz) and Chiara Gonzalez (Swanilda) in Queensland Ballet's Coppelia

Patricio Revé (Franz) and Chiara Gonzalez (Swanilda) in Queensland Ballet's Coppelia

Queensland Ballet’s reimagined Coppélia could well change the minds of those who regard the 150-year-old classic as having limited appeal for modern adult audiences.

That perception may be one reason why it gets aired less frequently these days than in prior generations; then Coppélia was a childhood staple that often provided a first live encounter with ballet.

It was for me as a nine-year-old in Townsville captivated by the tale of a beautiful life-sized doll who (seemingly) comes to life.

Choreographer Greg Horsman, having been mesmerised himself aged 15 attending with Geelong High School before going on to perform lead character Franz in three productions, was inspired to update the story in ways that would resonate with contemporary Australian viewers of all ages.

Premiering in 2014 as a Queensland Ballet/West Australian Ballet co-production, his interpretation augments the humour and charm at Coppélia’s centre by presenting the plot in a completer and more relatable context.

It encompasses an emotional and geographical journey from Germany to South Australia’s Hahndorf, which was founded by Lutheran immigrants in 1838.

At a time when many historical ballets are being viewed through a revisionist lens, the traditional dollmaker/magician Dr Coppélius might be assigned pejorative connotations.

Horsman gives the doctor a scientific identity and poignant motivation for wanting to make his inanimate creation come to life. Accordingly, soloist Vito Bernasconi brings depth and pathos to a character usually defined by his folly.

The most talked-about addition to the staging a decade ago and still now is AFL football taking centre-stage, with players kitted in Magpies black-and-white stripes. One might argue that introducing an oval-shaped ball is the riskiest part of the choreography, and so it proved on opening night despite some rehearsal tutelage from the Brisbane Lions.

However, the kick that didn’t go as predicted (the orchestra spared by the pit netting) only upped an energetic mood of spontaneity that made the work feel as fresh and vibrant as it did a decade ago.

Delightfully natural performances and reactions maximised the intended humour throughout, especially in the famous Act II sequences inside Dr Coppélius’s workshop, which involve Swanilda and her friends before she masquerades as the mechanical Coppélia.

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There are lovely interactions and dancing between Swanilda (senior soloist Chiara Gonzalez) and her beau Franz (principal Patricio Revé), who nonetheless is receptive when he thinks the wind-up doll blowing him kisses is actually a real woman.

They handle the challenging and showy choreography they’re given in Act III with aplomb; Revé’s command and charisma just keep on growing.

Soloist Laura Tosar is another standout as Swanilda’s bestie Mary, and her play for Henry (principal Alexander Idaszak, a well-matched foil) is a crowd-pleasing comic scene.

Horsman named these characters of Scottish extraction after his parents, and for those who have Scots or German heritage – or like myself, both – the ballet connects on another level again.

By tapping into our national identity while retaining the work’s origins, and extracting timeless aspects of universal human connection, Horsman has coalesced nostalgia and contemporary relevance.

Traditionalists may feel differently, but those open to his approach may well see Coppélia as a revived and re-energised classic.

Coppélia is on until June 22 at the Playhouse, QPAC

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