Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Origins of Coppelia

A few weeks ago the Secret Victorianist was back at the New York City Ballet (see my thoughts on the NYCB’s Nutcracker here) for a production of Coppelia, the perennially popular story of a man who believes his doll has come to life. The ballet premiered in Paris in 1870, with music by Leo Delibes, libretto by Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter and choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon. The New York City Ballet uses Balachine and Danilova’s 1974 choreography.

The NYCB's Coppelia

Coppelia plays with many of the tropes of European folklore and fairy-tale. Lovers fight and are reunited, youngsters trick old men, reality isn’t always in line with appearances. But watching the NYCB’s production made me wonder about the origins of this nineteenth-century ballet, conceived in a time when clockwork toys were all the rage, not quaint reminders of a distant past.

Coppelia was in fact inspired a story penned by E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King inspired Christmas-favourite The Nutcracker. In 1815 short story Der Sandmann, protagonist Nathanael turns away from loving childhood sweetheart Clara, enraptured by the beautiful Olimpia, who turns out to be an automaton.

There are multiple similarities here. One of Olimpia’s creators goes by the names Copellius and Coppola, directly influencing the names used in the ballet. The dolls in both stories sit on balconies, apparently reading, while watched by pining lovers. And in both cases a man abandons his former love for a fantasy, calling into question the fragility of reality and the fickleness of masculine desire.

But the differences are even more revealing. In the ballet abandoned fiancée Swanhilda steals the show, mimicking the movements of a doll to trick lonely inventor Dr Coppelius and her untrustworthy lover. In Der Sandmann Clara merely suffers patiently and can only enjoy her happy ending after Nathanael’s death.

In the comedy it is the inventor who must be humbled by the end, with order returned to the village and youngsters dancing off neatly in pairs. But in the unnerving and Gothic story, Nathanael’s fate changes the nature of relationships between men and women, with lovers now doubting not only their partners’ sincerity, but also their humanity.

Finally a central theme of Hoffmann’s survives into the NYCB’s choreography in just a couple of moments, where Swanhilda mocks the blinking of the doll’s mechanical eyes. In Der Sandmann the idea of sight is ever present. The threat of the sandman blinding them is used to scare children to bed, a telescope allows Nathanael to ‘see’ Olimpia, without really understanding what she is, and the devastating revelation that she’s just a toy comes when he finds her eyes discarded on the ground.

'Ava' in Ex Machina
It’s easy to think of modern equivalents for these two very different approaches to the idea of women designed for men. The doll Coppelia is the precursor to the fem-bots in Austin Powers, the ballet equivalent of the blow-up doll carried around at a bachelor party. But Olimpia has more kinship with Ava in Ex Machina or an army of Stepford Wives.

Audiences will continue to delight in the unabashed silliness of one of the world’s most popular ballets, to revel in the quaintness of the toy store set, the nostalgia of Germanic villages decked out by ribbons and flowers. But I couldn’t help wishing for a modern take on Coppelia in a world of AI, sex-bots and catfishing.

Do you know of any NYC productions you’d love the Secret Victorianist to watch? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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