Cockpit Theatre, London
September 2, 2021
The autumn dance season, one that has major world premieres wherever you look, got off to a fine start at the intimate Cockpit Theatre with Kevan Allen’s Coppélia, the first production for his new KVN Dance Company. He promised a deeper, slightly darker look at what is usually a pretty lightweight ballet. He does not disappoint in what is a fine production full of energy and quite brilliant designs.
Told over two acts, the traditional story is all there. What is different, is the greater focus on Dr Coppélius. Indeed, in Act I, there are effectively two storylines: Franz and Swanhilder, and the inventor and his favourite creation, Coppélia. Allen weaves the narratives together by showing us the difficult relationship the inventor has with the villagers, who regard him as an oddball, at best to be avoided, at worst to be picked on, before bringing them fully together in Act II.
Allen sets his story in a fantasy world where the technology of the day is clockwork. That’s emphasised even in the pre-show welcoming soundscape, a mixture of whirring, ticking sounds mixed with the occasional bell and cuckoo clock. Later there are clockwork headphones and a clockwork remote for Coppélius’ many dolls, although the pièce de résistance is definitely set designer Justin Williams’ fantastically detailed interior of the inventor’s workshop.
The scene is completed by Wendy Olver’s marvellous costumes. That for Coppélius again heads the list, a sort of steampunk meets mad professor affair, complete with full-length coat that has seen better days. Elsewhere, along with Allen, she does a fine job making each villager (they are all named) clearly identifiable as an individual character, from Little Maisie (never without those headphones, even at the wedding), through prim and proper wedding organisers and caterers Mr and Mrs Pumpernickel, to Franz and Swanhilder’s various friends.
Driven entirely by the dance, the story rattles along at a fair pace. Not a step or a second is wasted. Allen’s combination of ballet, contemporary and hip hop comes together easily as dances and scenes flow effortlessly into one another.
If anything, Swedish composer Rickard Berg’s adaptation of the Delibes score is even more reimagined and remixed than Allen’s story. The familiar tunes are all there, although sometimes in unexpected places. They are also frequently interrupted, broken or fragmented as Berg draws on his electronic music background.
A playful duet introduces Franz and Swanhilder. Danny Fogarty seems almost weightless as he cartwheels over a bench. As his sweetheart, Marina Fraser is beautifully light with a radiant smile. That segues nicely into a harder ‘street’ quartet for the men, before it’s time for the happy couple’s wedding preparations, a scene sprinkled with light humour.
But, in a diversion from the usual ballet versions, Dr Coppélius is equally important, Allen’s Act I also taking us inside his house.
For all the fine performances elsewhere, Michael Downing steals the show as the inventor. He gives us a nervous, wild-haired man, full of twitches. His eyes are truly alive; not only wide open but constantly flitting left and right. Until, that is, he’s alone with his Coppélia; the only time he seems to find peace and happiness. He cradles her, hugs her, dances with her. In the duet to the ‘Ballad of the Ear of Corn’ music, usually reserved for Franz and Swanhilder, there’s a real sense of pathos and that he really does love her, perhaps seeing her as a replacement for a lost wife.
After a drunken collision of the soon but temporarily not-quite-so-happy couple’s stag and hen parties, which finishes with them sneaking into the Doctor’s house, Act II opens a little spookily with Coppélius’ other dolls walking on in half-light. Events in the workshop, the Doctor drugging Franz, who is rescued by Swanhilder, and so on, follow the usual ballet plot.
Although the Cockpit stage is small, Allen uses it well. The compressed space does somehow magnify the energy, and helps create a real sense of chaos when all the dolls come to life at the same time. Sitting serious close almost makes you feel part of the action too. There are times when I wished the performers had just a little more space, however.
Those other dolls hint that Coppélius might have travelled overseas, and give Olver another chance to let rip with her imagination. They all seem to be patchwork creations inspired by more than one place. I particularly liked the dungaree-wearing couple, who also sported wide brimmed hats that hid their faces, complete with what looked like rabbit ears.
I don’t think it’s spoiling things to say it all comes well in the end, but to see quite how, you will have to go and see.
It’s a brave choreographer who launches his company with a new version of such a popular full-length work. Kevan Allen pulls it off in what is a super piece that delights enormously. As things stand, the only opportunity to catch this Coppélia is during the present Cockpit Theatre season. I hope it gets the chance to be seen more widely. It’s fine cast and creative team, certainly deserve it.
Coppélia by KVN Dance is at the Cockpit Theatre in London’s Marylebone until September 11, 2021. Visit www.thecockpit.org.uk for details and tickets.