Innovation Key to 'Coppelia' Performance

Roducing new ballets and regularly staging permanent repertoires are the two fundamental goals of the National Ballet of China.

Last year, the national ballet successfully presented "Raise the Red Lantern" by renowned movie director Zhang Yimou. This year, the new production is "Coppelia," choreographed by Par Isberg.

The debut is to be given at the Tianqiao Theatre from May 1 to 3.

Derived from E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale, the first "Coppelia" premiered in the Paris Opera in 1870. Ever since, the ballet, varied in versions but all sprinkled with fantasy and mysticism, has been recognized as the most significant comic ballet and has entered the repertoire of many ballet theatres throughout the world.

"If 'Giselle' is a benchmark of interpretative style between the human and the spirit, 'Coppelia' is the signature note in happy bravura," said Ou Jianping, dance critic with the China National Academy of Arts.

It is the first time the National Ballet of China will produce "Giselle," although the Guangzhou Ballet staged its own version five years ago and the Shanghai Ballet finished its run of "Giselle" early this year.

Different from its local counterparts, which just bought the old French copies, the National Ballet of China dares to stage a totally innovative version.

"We want to have a version of our own, fitting our dancers and featuring novel concepts," said Zhao Ruheng, president of the National Ballet of China.

She invited Par Isberg, retired principle dancer and choreographer with the Royal Swedish Ballet, to do the work.

Zhao and Isberg met for the first time at the 225th anniversary celebration of the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1998.

"I was impressed by his choreography of 'The Nutcracker," she recalled. "It was full of original creation."

She decided then and there to invite him to China to inspire domestic choreographers with his stylish and novel ideas, she said.

Isberg gladly accepted the invitation. "I came to know that China has great ballet and ballerinas besides the Peking Opera when I saw the Chinese ballet 'The Red Detachment of Women' in New York in 1978," he said.

In 2000, Isberg first co-operated with the National Ballet of China and successfully choreographed "The Butterfly Lovers."

"We were amazed at how a foreigner could tell a traditional Chinese love story so vividly and expressively," Zhao said.

Some foreign critics have remarked that in "Swan Lake" the queen does not dance, while Isberg makes the old mother of Liang Shanbo, the hero in "The Butterfly Lovers," dance gracefully.

Aware of his talent and professional dedication, the National Ballet of China invited him to choreograph "Coppelia" this time.

For Isberg, "Coppelia" is a challenging but interesting work. "It has one of the most luscious, danceable scores you could ever wish for," the choreographer said.

"What's more, I could give free rein to my imagination and creation since Madam Zhao did not give me any orders or requirements," he said.

The story of Isberg's version remains loyal to the original French creation but is much simpler.

The eccentric doll-maker Coppelius tempts the villagers with his lifelike dolls, including the latest one called "Coppelia." His pupil Franz shows a special interest in Coppelia, which makes his fiancee Swanhilda jealous.

Swanhilda wants to teach Franz a lesson, so she pretends to be Coppelia. Franz thinks Coppelia is really given life by Coppelius and flirts with her.

Then a series of funny episodes take place; and of course, all ends happily, with a long series of dances performed for the betrothal.

The main difference from other versions is that Coppelius is no longer an old supporting role with very little dancing but a central character who dominates the plot.

Isberg portrays him as a passionate inventor with the mind and fantasies of an artist.

The dedicated choreographer said he tried to be like Coppelius and tried to madly love the dolls so as to understand the character's real feelings.

He choreographed many dance pieces for the role and selected Sun Jie to play the part.

Sun, 33, who once played Liang Shanbo in Isberg's "Butterfly Lovers," has a good understanding of the choreographer's work.

"His dance is very exquisite and emotional," said Sun. "He not only teaches dancers the fixed movements but also knows how to inspire and encourage them to display themselves."

In Isberg's eyes, "Sun could perfectly display the character in my mind."

All of the male characters, including Franz and Coppelius, dance much more than in other versions.

Isberg's clarification and simplification of the narrative reduces the extraneous elements in the original story, and gives his staging a direct and cogent appeal.

Zhao has not only invited Isberg, she has solicited help from a production crew from Sweden, whose members include Anne-Marie Antilla, costume designer; Bo-Ruben Hedwall, set designer; Torkel Blomqvist, lighting designer; and choreographer's assistant Gunilla Roempke. Roempke has co-operated with Isberg on seven productions.

"The all-foreign crew could bring us an entirely new conception of ballet," said Zhao.

Hedwall, who once studied Chinese painting and calligraphy, has designed a clean stage. Coppelius' studio, out of Hedwall's pen, looks a little like a Chinese courtyard.

The costumes are somewhat fashionable, with jeans for men and short, tight skirts for women.

In general, the new version of "Coppelia" is a very modern one. Isberg integrates exquisite ballet steps with fresh elements such as a Hungarian csardas dance, a Polish mazurka dance and puppet humour.

In the first act, the ballerinas even dance on roller-skates.

Besides Sun Jie, the ballet also stars Wang Qiming, Wu Haiyan, Li Jun, Yu Bo and other young dancers, who help accomplish Zhao's goal of staging the new production while training and prompting the younger dancers.

Isberg's Swanhilda, like the role in other versions, is one of ballet's great ingenue roles. She offers ballerinas the chance to show off both their acting ability and technical skill via a generous and varied series of steps.

Wang Qiming, 20, a fast-rising young star of the National Ballet of China, has danced the part with deliciously high-spirited assurance during rehearsals.

She is a delightful Swanhilda, vivacious and full of fun, Isberg commented.

"Wang's buoyantly confident technique is ideal for the role. She is an attractive Swanhilda with a pinch of real naughtiness to give flavour to the role," said Isberg.

She is well-matched by the Franz of boyishly handsome Li Jun, a thin dancer with a terrific spring in his powerful thighs.

During rehearsals, he has executed perfect jumps and delivered the choreography splendidly.

An elegant classicist, he also has an eye for flirtatious comedy.

"As a whole, the ballet, with the ravishing and delightful original score by Leo Delibes, is expected to be a feast for audiences," said Zhao.

"I hope after seeing my version of 'Coppelia,' the audiences will hum on the way back home, with a delighted heart," Isberg said.

( China Daily May 1, 2002)