Paris Opera Ballet’s Dark-ish Coppelia

So, did anyone see the live-stream of POB’s Coppelia last Monday? I went but was extremely tired, so I guess my review should be read with that in mind. I was working a contract job with crazy long, graveyard shift hours and though the movie was at 1:30 in the afternoon Manhattan time (7:30 p.m. Paris time) I really should have been at home sleeping. But I had to miss POB’s earlier Caligula, so really wanted to see this.

It was different from the versions of Coppelia I’ve seen by the American companies. It was darker, not at all cutesy and Nutcracker-ish with doll-like movements of humans imitating toys and silly people mistaking dolls for girls. The program notes say the choreographer, Patrice Bart (after Arthur Saint-Leon) wanted to give “a bit more psychological depth to the characters and feed the drama of their relationships, including finding plausible motivations / reasons in certain passages.”

I’m all for darker ballets exploring human drama in greater depths than many of the classics do, but unfortunately, I just had a hard time grasping the story here and understanding the characters’ motivations despite Bart’s intentions. I think part of the problem was that Bart used the language of classical ballet, rather than modern. Tudor is probably the master of revealing psychology through movement, but his movement language was wholly unique. Here, Coppelius, for example, would do basic ballet turns, jumps, an arabesque, etc. – all very lyrical, within the classical ballet vocabulary, then would do some kind of intentionally awkward port de bras, jabbing an arm out this way and that and twisting his torso unnaturally. I guess that more modern, angular arm movement was supposed to show angst, and it did, but it was just so inferior to movement someone like Tudor would have used to show a psychological state.

I assume everyone knows the story and I probably shouldn’t – especially this version: Coppelius is haunted by the image of a woman he loved and lost. Swanilda evokes her memory for him. Frantz, a student, is in love with Swanilda, who kind of returns his affections but not as completely as he would like. Spalanzani is a toy-maker who seems to have some outlines of a doll he’s in the process of making, which also haunt Coppelius, reminding him of the woman he loved and lost.

According to the program notes, Coppelius is a seducer, not at all the silly wobbling clown from the American productions. He tries to seduce Swanilda, who seems, from what I could tell of the onstage action, to be a bit taken by him, but only to a point. She and her girlfriends break into Spalanzani’s toy factory, play with the toys – like in the American productions – but then Swanilda sees how taken Coppelius is with the outline of the doll Spalanzani is in the process of making, and for some reason, she decides to don the doll’s costume and dance for Coppelius. It’s unclear whether she is pretending to be the doll come to life – her movements aren’t at all doll-like, as in the American productions. But at one point, things get too serious, Coppelius gets too impassioned with her, and she runs off, somewhat afraid of him. Then she accepts Frantz and the two end up together, their silhouettes wandering off into the tunnel of light, as in the photo above.

Swanilda was danced by Dorothee Gilbert, whom I’d never seen before and really liked. Both she and Mathias Heymann, as Frantz, had a lot of presence, showed a lot of facial emotion, were good at miming. They told the story as best as they could given what I felt was limiting choreography. Heymann’s lines didn’t always seem to be all there though, and I just couldn’t stop thinking how much more clean and physically magnificent David Hallberg would have been in that role. Sometimes Frantz’s male friends seemed to outdance him with their precision, height of jump, etc. It was odd, but his dancing seemed to be a bit sloppy. I’ve seen him dance before though (can’t remember whether it was with NYCB or Trisha Brown or at the Guggenheim) but I know I didn’t think that about him before.

Gilbert’s dancing was much cleaner. She definitely didn’t focus on athleticism, like Natalia Osipova. But her dancing was lyrical and lovely, and she had a strong personality and clarity of intention. Her Swanilda was at times a tease, at times inquisitive, longing, fearful, confused. She always had something going on behind her eyes – which is one of the things I value most in a dancer and which there’s not enough of these days, imo.

My biggest problem though was with Jose Martinez, who danced the part of Coppelius, which is a dance role here, not a character role. I know he’s a big deal, longtime principal in Europe, and is on the verge of retiring and taking over the Spanish ballet company Nacho Duato currently helms (Martinez is Spanish as well). It well may have been his costume – he wore a long top coat, pleated pants that bulked at the pelvis, and black soft jazz shoes – so not at all ballet costuming. But his lines were not clean at all, his movement looked very sloppy, he was completely lacking sharpness and precision. Could be I just couldn’t see the precision because of the bulking pants, but still – I couldn’t stop thinking about how much better Marcelo Gomes, who I could really see in that role, would have been, despite the pants and coat.

I don’t know if you can still get the NY Times reviews now that the paper’s behind a paywall, but Macaulay has an interesting explanation: he says the POB ballet dancers of late (ever since Nureyev, actually) are trained that way – to not give so much attention to line, amongst other things like musicality and expressive phrasing.

I don’t know. It was my first time seeing POB perform as a company and I really wanted to  like them. Overall, I was unimpressed, unfortunately. I did really like Gilbert though and I will definitely want to see her dance again.


  1. Can I say that what Macaulay said is total bullsh*t? From what I’m familiar with, POB dancers were trained to put emphasis on cleanliness, placement and petit batterie, you won’t see any of their alumnus put their legs next to their ear in developpe (except Guillem of course but you can forgive her because despite her extension she never distorts her upper body to reach it unlike some of the Russians that I’m sure you know). To get a better look of POB company you can’t look for it in Coppelia (Patrice Bart is a good ballet master but frankly he’s crap at choreographing) see Aurelie Dupont and the corps in La Sylphide (Lacotte’s version) or in Sleeping Beauty. Dorothee Gilbert is really wonderful in Henriette variations. You might want see Mathias Heymann in La Source and La Fille in Youtube to see what he truly capable of, let’s just say he deserves to be an etoile at the age 21 yo 🙂

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