Computer-controlled mannequins, a rock-star homage and a bubble-blonde Coppélia

Dutch National Ballet at Het Muziekteater, Amsterdam
December 20, 2016

Maggie Foyer

Plastic surgery is big business. In the UK, the figures for young women contemplating cosmetic surgery are soaring. With a nip, a tuck and a little trim you too can become the perfect woman and this is Dr Coppélius’ message as he arrives in town with the gorgeous bubble blonde, Coppélia, on his arm to open his new clinic in a blaze of media hype.

In the town, young lovers Zwaantje (Little Swan) and Frans are preparing for their wedding, but when the beautiful Coppélia smiles and waves to Frans, it can only mean trouble. However, through three acts of confusion, subterfuge and fun, all is resolved. Characters flood the stage, each one an individual, down to the Frenchified poodle and floppy-eared dog, and standing in extreme contrast to the clinically cloned perfection of Dr Coppélius’ team.

For Het’s Christmas show Ted Brandsen revives his successful Coppélia premiered in 2008. He has rechoreographed Léo Delibes’ tuneful music in exuberant dance. The young men revision the Mazurka with athletic gusto and all get to play their part as set piece variations shift to modern sharing, resulting in a lively conversation between characters. Brandsen has kept most of the traditional tale, but fast forwarded to the technological age so clockwork mannequins become break-dancers, a rock star homage to Bowie and a James Bond, who bags the Scottish variation! The dolls are now controlled by computer and zapper but Zwaantje’s bespectacled geeky friend (Suzanna Kaic), is on hand to break the codes.

Dutch National Ballet in Ted Brandsen's CoppéliaPhoto Marc Haegeman
Dutch National Ballet in Ted Brandsen’s Coppélia
Photo Marc Haegeman

Frans, Artur Shesterikov, is the nice guy philanderer and Zwaantje, Anna Ol, the sweet, young thing who proves tough enough to win her man. The pair, two of the company’s finest classical dancers, get into party mode creating friendly, fun characters while never losing form. Roman Artyushkin as Dr Coppélius, in super-sophisticate black and white striped tights, conducts his team like a true maestro but cannot halt the course of true love.

The denouement is taken at breakneck speed to the music of the ‘War’ variation. It is touch and go; but Zwaantje finally relents and agrees to marry the contrite Franz when eight clone assistants swarm on stage like angry hornets. Next, Coppélia, dressed in bridal finery, bourrées on with Dr Coppélius. With Frans in danger of kidnap, he grabs the zapper and, thankfully, hits the right button. The robot assistants and Coppélia crumple on cue and the doctor makes a sad exit carrying his creation in his arms.

The designs by award winning illustrator, Sieb Postuma, give the production the charm of a pop-up book with new delights at every turn. His magic starts with the front cloth, jam-packed with pen and ink cartoons of ‘before and after’ as droopy mouths are plumped to a pretty pout, rhino-noses whittled down to a cute retroussé, and ears firmly pinned back. Each image is witty, stylish and each hits the mark.

Ted Brandsen's CoppéliaAhmad Joudeh as the Dominee (Pastor) with Jeanette Vondersaar as Aunt LydiaPhoto Marc Haegeman
Ted Brandsen’s Coppélia
Ahmad Joudeh as the Dominee (Pastor) with Jeanette Vondersaar as Aunt Lydia
Photo Marc Haegeman

The black and white chic, highlighted by Coppélia’s trademark cerise pink, is celebrated in Francois-Noel Cherpin’s costumes. There is an explosion of 60s excess and style icons in the huge beehives of brassy blonde hair and the assistants in A-line tents and thigh high leggings, with a touch of hippy rebellion sneaking in with ethnic scarves and bell-bottoms to counter the haute couture. The action never stops on the very busy stage with plenty of dance for plenty of dancers. It is a great family show and a refreshing alternative to the traditional Christmas Nutcracker.

The production also boasts a special guest artist: the role of the Pastor in the Act 3 is played with distinction by Syrian refugee, Ahmad Joudeh (see our report here). In the tragedy of the brutal Syrian civil war his presence on the ballet stage makes a small but significant gesture.