Ballet meets circus: Feathers of Daedalus in Coppélia

Spiegeltent, Assembly George Square, Edinburgh
August 7, 2017

David Mead


Founded by Joanna Vymeris, who last year staged the rather engaging Alice at the Gilded Balloon, Feathers of Daedalus is a new circus company that sets out to tell stories with a twist. This year she has turned her attention to that family ballet staple, Coppélia. True to her aims, the tale is taken apart and rebuilt as she weaves film and poetry written and read by Sophie Leseberg-Smith into the circus and dance.

It helps make sense of things if you know the story since Vymeris drops the linear narrative, opting instead to divide her Coppélia into four parts that focus in turn on Dr Coppélius, Coppélia, Franz, and Swanhilda. It’s an innovative take on things that has much going for it.

Vymeris is to be commended for never losing sight of her story and characters, which are all nicely drawn. Unlike most circus productions that claim a narrative, she never relegates the tale to a distant back seat. Although the circus skills are good, there’s no going all out to thrill the audience with circus skills and tricks at the expense of the tale. Indeed, this Coppélia has only one or two occasions (involving Gabbie Cook’s Swanhilda on the Chinese pole) that will make you gasp.

To be fair, the Spiegeltent doesn’t do the show too many favours. The performance area consists of a raised catwalk leading to a small central stage no more than about 5 metres square. More than once I sensed the performers being acutely aware of the lack of space. It also wrecks some sightlines.

Tessa Blackman (Coppélia) and Josh Frazer (Dr Coppélius) in CoppéliaPhoto Roberto Riciutti
Tessa Blackman (Coppélia) and Josh Frazer (Dr Coppélius) in Coppélia
Photo Roberto Riciutti

Vymeris captures well the darker aspects of the tale that emanate from Coppélius, played nicely by Josh Frazer. “Divine woman, conquer my heart… Alive enough for the both of us,” we hear in the accompanying spoken text. At times, he is definitely in charge, as when he spins his Coppélia (Tessa Blackman) around, his hand in her mouth, but sometimes she seems to have a mind of her own, as when she grabs her or when she rises onto pointe, her maker on her shoulders.

I got quite a sense of the innocence of young love between Franz (Peter Shirley), referred to rather amusingly as “lover boy” as he and his Swanhilda dance a jive. True to form, of course, Franz also has eyes for Coppélia, playing out his feelings on the cyr wheel before dancing a duet to Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. I was less taken by the chorus of three ballerina dolls who appear from time to time.

Musically, the familiar Delibes is understandably dropped in favour of a collage of Mozart, Saint-Saens, that Cohen and more. Mostly it works, although some of the joins and long silences between were a bit jarring. I rather liked the spoken poetry, and the distant, quasi-Expressionist 16mm film. I’m not sure if the glitches with the latter were deliberate, but oddly they worked adding to the experimental nature of Dr Coppélius’ work.

For all its circus credentials, this is a Coppélia that will appeal more to a dance audience looking for a new take on an old tale, than a circus audience looking for thrills and spills.

Coppélia is on at 3.00pm at the Assembly George Square to August 28. Click here for details.
Running time: 1 hour