National Ballet of Japan in Roland Petit’s Coppélia

Livestream from New National Theatre, Tokyo
May 2, 2021

David Mead

Right from the moment when you hear Delibes’ overture played as if on a barrel organ, it’s clear Roland Petit’s Coppélia is going to be different. That opening sets the tone for what is an even more comedic take on the story than is usual, with not even a hint of darkness, all set in French garrison town circa 1870, which just happens to be the date of premiere of Arthur Saint-Léon’s original.

Mounted for the National Ballet of Japan by Petit’s right-hand man, Luigi Bonino, using the original set and costume designs by Enzio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino, the ballet looks a treat. The outdoor action takes place in square surrounded by barracks. Everything oozes place and time, even if the square in particular did look noticeably less brightly lit than when danced in London by the Stanislavsky Ballet some years ago. Coppelius’ home (Petit drops the ‘Dr’) is all period high ceilings and big windows.

Yui Yonezawa as Swanilda in Roland Petit's CoppéliaPhoto courtesy New National Theatre/National Ballet of Japan
Yui Yonezawa as Swanilda
in Roland Petit’s Coppélia
Photo Hidemi Seto

Instead of villagers, the men are toy-soldier like troops, the women the ‘ladies of the town’. In their music-box-style tutus, Swanilda’s friends in particular flirt with the men at every opportunity. With humour at almost every turn, Petit’s light-hearted approach has more than a hint of French operetta about it.

Yui Yonezawa is an absolute delight as Swanilda, clearly in love with Franz for all his faults. Bright, cheeky and with a lovely smile, she’s impossible not to fall for. Full of little looks and gestures, her comedic timing is brilliant. I defy anyone not to smile at her mimicking Franz’s strutting walk or bouréeing furiously on the spot as she has a little tantrum. Her dancing is a delight too. Her Spanish and Scottish solos are sharp and neat, and she flies across the stage with clarity and energy in the final pas de deux.

Franz’s introduction, smoking a cigar as he stands nonchalantly before launching into a solo tells us he’s a confident show-off. Shun Izawa’s dancing is remarkably light and easy. His turns are excellent, batterie clean and he gets plenty of height in his jetés. Unfortunately, and the choreography doesn’t hep, he never develops as a character. His playing up to the women of the town is spot on, but there is little sense that he does actually feel for Swanilda.

Both are outshone by Shunya Nakajima’s Coppélius, however. Petit’s take on the character is not remotely dark or mysterious. In fact, he’s rather likeable. Bespectacled, moustached and slightly silvery-haired, he’s elegant and suave, almost debonair, in his frock-coat. It’s never made entirely clear, but the suggestion is that he’s just lonely, and has created his doll to keep him company.

Nakajima plays him perfectly with just the right comic touch. In Act II, he sets up a dinner date with his doll, lights candles on the table and even shares a glass of champagne. The pas de deux that follows, her feet attached to his dapper shoes, is a gem of comic dance, yet in its’ way, also sad and quite pathetic. It’s impossible not to feel for him at the end too as he stands forlornly with his doll as Swanilda and Franz’s wedding celebrations go on around him, before it literally falls apart in his arms.

Shunya Nakajima as Coppélius waltzes with his dollPhoto courtesy New National Theatre/National Ballet of Japan
Shunya Nakajima (Coppélius) and doll
Photo Hidemi Seto

The three leads are superbly backed up by the soldiers and their ladies. The choreography for them is not complex but their enthusiastic Act I Mazurka and Czardas, both with a fair dash of ooh-la-la, perk things up nicely. I could have done with a little less saucy wiggly of shoulders and bosoms and wagging of bustles, though.

Act III of the traditional ballet always feels a little drawn out with too many dances that have little to do with the plot. Maybe Petit felt the same, because he dismisses most of them, leaving just ten minutes tacked onto the end of Act II, which features only a little more of Franz playing to the town’s women and the big pas de deux.

He removes a few other familiar elements and skates over one or two much loved moments too, none more so that the ‘Ear of Corn’ pas de deux, which not only has no corn, or even a corn substitute, and that loses all sense of poignancy. In Coppélius’ home there are no human-size marionettes to bring to life, just a cabinet dancing limbs and revolving heads.

Petit’s Coppélia is a refreshing change. His wit and humour bring the ballet a welcome dose of vitality. Coppélius’ glorious Act II waltz with his doll is a moment of choreographic genius that it was a pleasure to revisit. True, there is the odd narrative gap, some omissions might upset some watchers, and you never quite get the sense that Franz really does love Swanilda, but it is an enjoyable couple of hours that really does make you smile, again and again.

The final free livestreaming of Coppélia by the National Ballet of Japan is on May 8, 2021 at 6am BST (2pm Tokyo). Visit for access details.