Coppelia lands in ’50s US mid-west

IF THERE is one thing of which Anne Maher, director of Ballet Ireland, is certain, it is that her chosen genre cannot hope to survive in a time warp, preserved waxily under a glass dome somewhere around the 1880s.
Coppelia lands in ’50s US mid-west

It needs to reinvent itself, resonate with today’s audiences if it is to succeed.

Well, that’s certainly true of a new production of Coppelia, now on tour. Instead of old-world central Europe, this version is set in America’s mid-west of the 1950s, when women’s lib is starting to emerge and, in direct opposition, the male ideal of the perfect domestic goddess is being strongly enforced.

If that sounds refreshingly different, it’s thanks to librettist Stella Feehily who worked with choreographer Morgan Runacre-Temple on the piece from first concepts. Feehily (formerly Sorcha Byrne in Fair City) lives in London where she is a playwright at the Royal Court.

“Morgan wrote to the Royal Court to find someone. I had just finished doing a lot of work on a piece to do with the National Health Service and wanted something really different.”

She saw immediated that the Coppelia story was full of possibilities. “Morgan had this idea about the 1950s and had suggested stiff costumes, mannequins and things. So we worked from there.”

Everything in the story that’s important is used: The obsession with a beautiful doll, the wish to animate her, the town fair and, naturally, the original Delibes music.

The music has, however, been supplemented by composer Tom Lane, interpolating an element of bluegrass into certain scenes.

“We settled on 1959 at a county fair in mid-west America, but when you talk about the concept of female perfection today, with television and movie stars and modelling, it’s become even more extreme. Women on display now are even more groomed and primped and squeezed into things than back then. Ageing is simply not allowed.”

They explored the idea of Coppelia being a model who had sold herself to beauty, perfect as long as you didn’t come too close. Perhaps she could open fetes, but could certainly never mingle with real people.

All this fitted exceptionally well with the plot of Coppelia. Two men obsessed with a doll: Old Coppelius, who wants to bring her to life, and young Franz, who falls in love with an idealised image, though his fiancée Hildy, a newspaper reporter, isn’t going to sit by and let that happen.

“The 50s were an era when the perfect woman emerged,” says choreographer Morgan Runacre-Temple. “Women’s roles were being redefined and reinforced after the war as domestic goddess/beautiful doll, but this was also the time that women’s lib was starting to emerge, as well as the teenager, so it was an interesting period.”

Setting the ballet at a county fair meant the mazurka and czardas could be seen as real and earthy barn dances, whereas the electronic technology of the second act brings stiffly-moving dolls to temporary life. The erstwhile Swanilda is no longer trapped by convention, she is a tough young reporter, accustomed to searching out the truth.

“If it isn’t reinterpreted, redeveloped, so that it resonates with young people, it becomes meaningless, a dusty piece of history as opposed to a living, breathing art form,” says Maher.

Coppelia tours countrywide until Dec 20, including the Everyman in Cork on Nov 14. www.balletireland.ie

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