Sakuma masterful as Swanilda in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Coppélia

Birmingham Hippodrome
June 13, 2017

David Mead

Dark edgy ballets and modern interpretations are all very well, and I do like to see new things, and new takes on old things, but there is a big place for the traditional too. Sir Peter Wright’s Coppélia is just that. It’s also the sort of thing that Birmingham Royal Ballet are most noted for, and with good reason. This is an evening that will leave even the most gnarled balletgoer all aglow.

Joseph Caley and Nao Sakuma were a delight as Franz and Swanilda. Sakuma sparkled. It’s hard to imagine any man in the village not casting an eye in her direction. Lucky Franz, then. She may stamp her foot at his antics, she may hurl a book at him, she may glare and stomp off in a huff (always an audience favourite) but, deep down, Sakuma leaves us in no doubt that Swanilda is desperately in love, and that Franz is the only one for her; despite his occasional indiscretions. Although the big visual comedy gets the laughs, it’s the more subtle touches that always appeal to me: the little glance, the ‘I forgive you’ smile. Sakuma is a master at those too.

Caley is a playful Franz, although his is a Franz who I have a sneaky feeling knows exactly what he’s doing when he flirts with the other girls. It’s as if he’s stringing her along, playing a bit of a joke, waiting to see what the reaction will be. When she stamps off and slams the door, it’s not the end of the world, because he knows she’ll be back, just as she knows it too.

Nao Sakuma as SwanildaPhoto Bill Cooper
Nao Sakuma as Swanilda
Photo Bill Cooper

Elsewhere, Michael O’Hare’s Dr Coppélius is not at all dark (or maybe I’ve just seen too many performances), but is more a neat cross between wizard, mad professor (complete with sticky-up white hair) and a simple old man with a dream.

Peter Farmer’s designs are a quite a spread too, moving from the autumnal colours of the forest lakeside village with its golden stone buildings, to Coppélius’ slightly dusty, mysterious, Tardis-like workshop, to the night-time grounds of the local mansion for the Masque of the Bell celebrations.

That fete provides the perfect excuse for some very pleasing short dances and the big pas de deux, even if the story falls by the wayside rather. In the symbolic variations that represent the different times the bell may be tolled, Céline Gittens glittered as Dawn, full of expression and as bright as the rising sun. Delia Matthews was all calm grace as Prayer. As always, though, the big roars were left for the men of the Call to Arms, a feast of male virtuosity led by Mathias Dingman. The ensemble all looked on top form too.

Sakuma and Caley made the pas de deux look effortless. She radiated happiness, just proving, as if we had any doubts, that Swanilda and Franz’s love was strong. Her feet were as sharp as ever, his lifts and big jumps all as powerful as solid as trees in the grounds.

I dare you not to feel all warm inside.

Coppélia continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to June 17, and is then at the Bristol Hippodrome from June 28-July 1.

From June 21-24, Birmingham Royal Ballet dance a programme of three short story ballets at the Birmingham Hippodrome, featuring Michael Corder’s Le Baiser de la fée; Ruth Brill’s Arcadia, her main stage debut; and Frederick Ashton’s naval romp, Pineapple Poll.