Spiegeltent, Assembly George Square Gardens, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 13th August 2017
Intricate and enticing costumes, a set full of interesting objects almost out of view, and projection screens of montage animation or live footage dress this new circus-theatre adaptation of classical ballet tale Coppélia, from new company Feathers Of Daedalus. Director Joanna Vymeris made an strong impression on me last year with her student adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, and this first professional show confirms that she has both vision and the resources to pull off high quality production values rarely possible for an emerging artist. She has theatrical ambition for dance that makes me think of a burgeoning Matthew Bourne (although, naturally, Vymeris still has a way to go to achieve his level of directorial expertise).
The story shows a wooden doll of such perfection that the hearts of creator, Dr Coppélius, and local youth Franz are captured. The pair’s covetousness corrupts them into inhuman behaviour and, whilst exactly who is going to be sacrificed and how is not clear in this adaptation, we know that things are not looking good for Franz’ erstwhile love, the daring, jilted Swanhilda. In the role that could make or break this show, Tessa Blackman is superb as the enamel-eyed Coppélia, and it is her unflinching gaze that begins to add a touch of contemporary relevance to the piece as real, warm-blooded Swanhilda (Gabbie Cook) is passed over for the unnatural construction of aesthetic womanhood that can be controlled and manipulated by its possessor.
Narrative is provided through original text written by Sophie Leesberg Smith, delivered by a scene-setting chorus of three wind-up ballerinas or in voice-over as interior monologue. Vymeris acknowledges the influence of Surrealist art on her work, and the choice to use one recorded female voice for all the character studies is certainly a confusing one, as we try to work out whose perspective we are hearing – never that of the title character.
The cast are helped immensely by the emotive ballet score and well chosen contemporary song tracks, as the choreographed depictions of mood and feeling do not, for the most part, visibly connect with the performers’ own feelings. Circus disciplines and equipment are harnessed for their symbolic capacity: we see Blackman slowly turning in an aerial hoop like a doll in a music box; we see Peter Shirley, as Franz, trapped in his romantic bubble of a Cyr wheel; Dr Coppélius (Josh Frazer) looms ominously over the imprisoned Swanhilda from the top of a Chinese pole, and I interpret Daphne Chia’s clean and adept ribbon gymnastics as a representation of the ties used to bind her.
A strange post-script seems to start as a play’s-over party charivari, including a filmed black and white sequence of the circus acts in their training spaces (the shots do nothing special in their cinematography, but the edit is nice), but then manifests more into rage as a thwarted Dr Coppélius destroys all his dolls and we find ourselves back in the story.
While there are plot details that elude me and nuances skipped, I’ve enjoyed the delicious darkness behind the show’s pastel-pinks, and Vymeris is definitely a director to watch.