12 Apr 2024

KVN Dance Company in Coppelia

This is Coppelia updated for a modern world, fusing ballet, contemporary dance, and hip-hop to a beat-driven Delibes score….

Micheal Downing as Dr Coppelius, Rosie Southall as Coppelia and Zach Parkin as Franz in the KVN Dance Company Coppelia. Picture © Hettie Pearson.Micheal Downing as Dr Coppelius, Rosie Southall as Coppelia and Zach Parkin as Franz in the KVN Dance Company Coppelia. Picture © Hettie Pearson.

KVN Dance Company
★★★✰✰ Chesham, Elgiva Theatre
11 April 2024
and touring through to 30 June 2024

Traditionally, Coppelia is the story of Dr Coppelius and the introverted inventor’s quest to create a human-like robot (aka automaton), Coppelia, fused with the love story of a wandering-eyed boy, Franz, and his all too good-natured first love Swanhilda. Boy meets girl and falls in love; boy sees better’ girl (only it’s the Coppelia doll), loses his head and chases her, original girl rescues him from the strange inventor’s home, full of various automata dolls sparking into vivid life, and ultimately everybody is united in a happy wedding and much festive carousing by the entire village.

Coppelia is played as a light comedy love story in most ballet versions. But Scottish Ballet recently did an award-winning version that played with some darker elements in a bang-up-to-date plot set in the AI world of Silicon Valley. According to a programme note, Kevan Allen’s version for his KVN Dance Company also seeks to update the story a little, looking to explore Dr Coppelius’s motivations in creating an automaton and the consequences for everybody else. I wouldn’t say this resulted in any substantial departures in the telling compared to most versions, if some nuances might have escaped me.

The significant changes in this Coppelia are to Fuse classical ballet with contemporary dance and hip-hop”, to hugely rework Delibes’ score to make it much more percussive and beat (and occasionally silence) driven and to have a set of villagers reflective of an LGBTQ+ world. For 12 dancers, everybody on stage seems to have a backstory, not least the gayly straight-laced and way, way, over the top Mr and Mrs Pumpernickel, who seem to have their own distracting micro-plot. All these backstories can result in a hectic stage, and sometimes, the main plot seems to be temporarily mislaid.

While the characters, music and dance telling of this Coppelia are all bang up to date, visually, this is 18th century with great costume designs by Wendy Olver, if I wonder why it was not set in the present day to complete the update. But no matter, they do look gorgeous. Also, some fine lighting (Mike Robertson) generally, if the occasional strobe effects, in sync with a rapid musical beat explosion, could grate. The choreographic mix could delight in its freedom but paradoxically seem restrictive, at times, in showing deeper emotions. For example, when the lovers first meet, you long for a duet of growing togetherness, and yet they spend so much time apart, mainly mirroring each other.

The dancers are a crack team of dance-theatre communicators with fine technical command as well - they are the real highlight of the night, and I say bravo to them. All up, I get the feeling of a Matthew Bourne/New Adventures approach to retelling an old story, but with almost too much dance busyness going on. What I wanted was my eye guided to see the evolving plot and get more drawn in at a deeper level to important characters. That said, I loved the happy ending when everybody had a knees-up, and the Delibes score stood on its own in support. And it certainly did the trick for the Elgiva audience, with many giving a standing ovation.