Coppélia: Behind the Doll’s Mask

Photo of Adeline Genée in Coppélia, London, 1900.
Public domain

To many, Coppélia rates as little more than a pretty ballet, perfect to take children to, as indeed it is.  However as part of the story of ballet it sits at a major crossroads, not only in the history of ballet and its development, but also at a turbulent time in Europe’s history.  Coppélia is the last masterpiece of the Ballet of the Second Empire.  Its true story is one of poignancy and great sadness, yet its sunny legacy lives on – proof of its choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon’s genius and also that of the composer Léo Delibes. 

By looking behind the doll’s mask, the true story unfolds of how of Coppélia was brought to life at its première in Paris in 1870.  It is a story that took over six years from inception to completion just months before the start of the Franco-Prussian war engulfed all those involved.  Based on two of ETA Hoffmann’s stories, Der Sandmann (The Sandman), and Die Puppe (The Doll), the libretto also wove in the new fascination for automatons and the possibility of robots, something that has captured the imagination for centuries: Leonardo da Vinci sketched a complex automaton in 1495 – the design was rediscovered in the 1950s and if built successfully, could move its arms, twist its head, and sit up. 

Coppélia has continued to be re-imagined by choreographers including Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti – this is the version still in the repertory The Royal Ballet – to versions by George Balanchine and Roland Petit, and a more recent contemporary version by Maguy Marin for the Lyons Opera Ballet.  This story weaves together the fascinating lives of those involved with its first creation, through the prism of a major European war, to its enduring story today over 140 years later.

Presentation: this presentation is illustrated by PowerPoint slides, along with archive film clips and DVDs shown to illustrate the topic.

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