A darker, deeper take on a classic: Kevan Allen’s Coppélia

David Mead talks to KVN Dance Company’s Artistic Director about his forthcoming remix of the ballet favourite.

With its easy-going humour, fun clockwork toys and loving couple, Coppélia is an understandably popular ballet. Most productions do lean towards the lightweight and inconsequential, however.

Choreographer Kevan Allen remembers seeing it as a child. He says he found a real connection with it, but was also a bit bemused. “I didn’t understand why they were all OK with this clockwork life-size doll, or who this man was, or why he built it. It was very pretty but didn’t have depth.”

Marina Fraser as Swanhilder
and Danny Fogarty as Franz
Photo Roger Robinson

A new production by Allen and his fledgling KVN Dance Company seeks to change that. For their debut season at London’s Cockpit Theatre next month, he is presenting what he calls a Coppélia remix: a reimagined version that expands and develops the story and reaches deeper into the background of the characters, including the sometimes-unsettling mind of Dr Coppélius.

But, he insists, people will still recognise it as Coppélia and it is still child-friendly. “It’s not going to scare your average ten-year-old,” he says laughing. “It is still about Franz and Swanhilder (as her name is spelled in the work), them breaking into Dr Coppélius’ workshop and what then happens. But I also think about why he invented the toys and the prejudice and gossip that surrounds him in the village. I want to have a reason behind everything that happens. There are just so many holes in the traditional story for me. I just think there’s so much more that can be done with it. I’m very attracted to the darker side of it.”

Without giving too much away, Allen will hint at Coppélius’ past. He sees him as once married, but who couldn’t cope when his wife passed away. He became a recluse and invented the life-size dolls, some of which are connected with his previous travels around the world. “When we are in the workshop just with Coppélius and Coppélia, she starts to dance a lot more. But we are witnessing what’s in his mind, where she is real. We are outsiders looking in. The minute the humans come in, she doesn’t move like that, she doesn’t dance like that.”

Choreographically, Allen promises a fusing together of the different dance styles his dancers bring, street, contemporary and ballet, which he hopes will broaden the scope and reach of the piece. It has been collaborative. In what would be sage advice to any young choreographer, he says, “My choreography is not about me making the best steps I can, then making you do it. I’m more, I’ve got this idea, I want this, how can we realise it. You have to work with the human beings, the bodies in front of you, and to make that person tell the story and be the best they can be.”

KVN Dance Company rehearsing Coppélia
(being carried: Michael Downing as Dr. Coppélius)
Photo Andrea Whelan

Dr Coppélius is played by Michael Downing, who recently received excellent reviews for Peter and the Wolf at the Hackney Empire, and whose other credits include music videos for international popstars. Marina Fraser takes on Swanhilder. A member of the 2020-21 Joffrey Studio Company, she has also appeared with the Viviana Durante Company. Her Franz is Danny Fogarty, who recently appeared in the hugely successful Netflix period drama Bridgerton.

Another reason for choosing Coppélia was that it was important for the company’s first show to have name recognition, says Allen. “They don’t know who I am, who my company is.” Yet, while his name might not be widely recognised in theatre dance, he has quite a reputation elsewhere. He has a long list of theatre and music credits, working on major musicals and individual artists including Kylie Minogue and Elton John. In television, he’s worked on high profile shows such as Americas Got Talent and with Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber in his search for a Dorothy on the TV series Over the Rainbow, having previously helped him find a Joseph for his Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, and a Nancy and Oliver in I’d Do Anything for Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Oliver. In the corporate world, he’s done events for such as Nike, Sony, Samsung and Walt Disney.

Kevan Allen
Photo Andrea Whelan

In the commercial world, you always have to bear in mind what the company or sponsor wants, he explains. “It has to tick their boxes. But I think my core has always been the love of the pure dance. In a way, I think I’m actually going back to what I am really about. It comes from the soul.”

Having thought for some time about doing his own thing again, he says, “The point came where I thought, if you’re going to do it, you need to try and make it happen.”

Film of section workshopped in Los Angeles in 2017 got a good response, as did a longer half-hour version put together in the UK. Thanks to Covid, the full production has been postponed three times but he says, “Then these dates came up in September. We were ready to go and I thought, well, let’s just see.”

The show is entirely self-funded. “I thought about trying to do Arts Council funding but it seemed that wasn’t going to happen. It’s a minefield, all the boxes you have to tick. So, I thought, well, I’ll do it myself. I’ve been lucky, I’ve got some savings, I feel it’s something I want to get out there and do. We’re not going to make money from it. We’re not even going to break even. But that’s not the point. I want to give the artists a chance to do what they love, and to just put it out there and see what people think.”

For his creative team, Allen has turned to contacts from his long career in the commercial world.

Designs are by New Zealand-born Wendy Olver, whose client list is equally littered with big names. Allen says they take their cue from Dr Coppélius and his “crazy, inventor mind.” He describes the setting as a “magical, slightly steam-punky, slightly Gothic.” The props are all clockwork-inspired, he continues. Typical of the modern meets fantasy feel are clockwork-wound headphones that a villager listens to music on. “We’re trying to make it a bit of a cross and let the audience make their own minds up where they want it to be.”

Kevan Allen’s new Coppélia in rehearsal
Photo Andrea Whelan

Allen turned to Swedish composer, re-mixer and producer Rickard Berg for the music, who he met when he booked him as a live electric guitarist for a big corporate show in Germany, not realising he was one of the producers and writers of Bleachin’ Peakin’,an album he had long loved. Allen explains that he asked Berg to just “play with the score.” The result is something constructed around the original Delibes but with added samples, effects and new orchestrations so that the whole has a new edge. ” The existing version is very light in tone but this is more dark and un-nerving. It’s a complete remix, much more edgy, and in my mind much more exciting.”

If passion and excitement count for anything, Allen’s Coppélia should be a winner. He bubbles with enthusiasm about the project. “I could talk for hours. There are so many layers to it. I want to bring energy and life to the story.

Micheal Downing as Dr. Coppelius
Photo Andrea Whelan

While a larger venue might have been nice, he says a big plus of the Cockpit Theatre (London’s first purpose-built theatre-in-the-round) is that it will help the show be “an immersive dance experiences so people can witness the vitality and power of a performer up close. I didn’t want that thing where you just sit back and watch it. I want you to feel that you are within it and actually feel the energy of the dancers.”

For now, at least, Allen’s Coppélia will play a one-off run of 11 performances but he says he’d love to take it further. “It is very self-funded but also a very self-loved project that will hopefully launch the company onto bigger and better things.”

Coppélia by KVN Dance Company is at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, London, from September 2-11, 2021.
Visit www.thecockpit.org.uk for details and tickets.