As goodbyes go, the Paris Opera Ballet’s current run of Coppélia is an unfortunate one. On March 30 Patrice Bart, who choreographed this version in 1996, will bow out after more than 50 years with the company, first as a star dancer and later as ballet-master-in-chief. Contrary to popular French belief, however, a distinguished in-house career does not a choreographer make, and Bart’s ill-fated attempt at updating this 19th-century classic hardly reflects his long-term contribution to the company.
The original Coppélia is pure light-hearted comedy, a genre now so out of fashion in Paris that Bart decided to go back to the macabre story on which the ballet was loosely based, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman. The result is a muddled new storyline, charmless rather than dark, with a void at its centre: the absence of Coppélia, the lifelike doll whom Frantz falls for, prompting the jealous Swanilda to explore the workshop of toymaker Coppélius. Without this key to the characters, the production freewheels like an automaton gone mad. Peasants pop up for a lugubrious mazurka in what looks like a drab urban setting; Swanilda and Frantz’s fights and pas de deux unfold perfunctorily, with no dramatic arc to support them. Even Coppélius’s mechanical dolls, neither charming nor menacing, are little more than a footnote.
Choreographically speaking, this Coppélia is a byproduct of the Nureyev syndrome. Eighteen years after its former director’s death, the Paris Opera Ballet still can’t seem to shake off his idiosyncratic legacy, hyped in the past decade as the be-all and end-all of French ballet. Bart, one of his faithful lieutenants in the 1980s, has inherited many of Nureyev’s quirks – his fondness for psychoanalytic undertones and tangled partnering, for instance – but none more so than the need to cram as many steps as is possible into every scene. Even the excellent Paris corps de ballet can’t possibly keep straight as the fussy choreography races against Delibes’ score, oblivious to the concept of transitions, seemingly afraid of its own shadow.
Nolwenn Daniel, a fine exponent of the French school, navigates the choreography valiantly as Swanilda alongside a lacklustre Frantz (Karl Paquette), but only powerhouse soloists could bring to life their tedious pas de deux. Coppélius is by far the most rewarding part in this production, and Stéphane Phavorin’s peculiar features and spindly lines convey just the right nuance of neurotic loneliness. Everyone else on stage seems in doubt about their dramatic purpose amid the frantic blur of steps. This Coppélia will be relayed live to cinemas across the world on March 28, but it’s worth waiting for the broadcast of the Bolshoi’s delightful reconstruction of the same ballet on May 29.