Serge Diaghilev famously described Coppélia as “the most adorable ballet in the world, a unique pearl in the history of dancing.” Unlike most classical ballets, Coppélia is a comedy. It was designed to be charming, tender and sweet at a time when political tensions were high and signs of impending revolution filled the streets of Paris. Composer Leo Delibes, always in line with the pulse of the times, eschewed theatrical trends of irony and mockery and instead gave Parisians a ninety minute escape into a zone of total cultural peace and social stability. Coppélia was the first ballet to incorporate folk dances into the choreography and while in 1870 this might have implied a sense of futility and doom, what endures in today’s production is its carefree quality of lightness and romance.
Although Arthur Saint-Léon notated his original version of Coppélia in 1870, contemporary productions are based on Marius Petipa’s 1884 re-staging, which included many changes and additions. The result of this is a ballet that merges the complementary strengths of both choreographers. Saint-Léon was brilliant when it came to solo variations and small ensembles, in which he demonstrated both French elegance and the French sense of measure. Petipa, on the other hand, embodied the grand style of St. Petersburg - perfect form and full-blown corps de ballet compositions. Even more importantly for Coppélia, Saint-Léon was prone to theatrical playfulness while the usually cautious Petipa always strove for pure form and strict lines. The inherent tension in these two choreographers’ styles distinguishes Coppélia within the Classical canon as a ballet that is as charmingly playful as it is choreographically well conceived.