Coppelia: Live Screening from the Bolshoi Ballet

sThe Bolshoi production of Coppelia was live screened to ballet lovers around the world on 10th June 2018. And who could miss the chance to see one of the world’s greatest ballet companies giving their own spin to this classic tale? Not me.

In Coppelia, we were treated to a production overflowing with sunshine and joy. Others, such as the Paris Opéra Ballet, have given Coppelia an altogether darker, more sinister treatment in recent years. The Bolshoi has resisted these urges, staying close to the roots of the ballet as a comedy. The result is a colourful, sparkling piece of storytelling that lets the dance shine through.

Swanhilda (Shrainer) and Frantz (Ovcharenko) of the Bolshoi Ballet
Swanhilda (Shrainer) and Frantz (Ovcharenko)

Shrainer and Ovcharenko as Swanilda & Frantz

In the past two years, Margarita Shrainer has been awarded a number of lead roles — all while being part of the corps de ballet. No doubt a controversial decision for some, but Shrainer is clearly rising to the challenge. One thing’s for certain — she’s unlikely to stay in the corps for much longer.

Margarita Shrainer as Swanhilda in Bolshoi Coppelia
Shrainer as Swanhilda in Act One of Coppelia

As Swanilda, an established principal — one of the prima ballerinas of the Bolshoi — would perhaps have brought more self-assurance to the role. Compared to someone such as Natalia Osipova dancing the same role, Shrainer lacks that sparky confidence that shines through in Osipova’s every move. But what she does bring is freshness and vulnerability. We can truly believe she is a peasant girl, young and in love, and understandably miffed at her beloved’s inconstancy. Her expressive face (appropriately doll-like) and light, quick mannerisms bring a sweetness to the role.

Artem Ovcharenko is every bit as assured a partner as we’d expect. His boyish looks and well-honed acting abilities make for a charming Frantz. Physically, he and Shrainer are well-matched, and he seems a supportive and generous partner. Someone remarked that the chemistry between them seemed lacking. Perhaps that will develop once Shrainer has worked her way up the ranks and these lead roles begin to feel more familiar. Right now, it’s understandable that her focus is on proving her right to be there, leaving less time for building rapport with her partners.

A Peasant Celebration from the Bolshoi Soloists and Corps

While the Bolshoi bring quality to every production, those dancers tasked with sitting or standing on stage can sometimes come across as a little, well, glum. Fortunately, in Coppelia they were for the most part a smiling and engaged on-stage audience. Some very dashing looking military men and their lovely, full-skirted companions brought charm to the stage in the village scenes. In the final act, the maidens in their white caps (beaming smiles at the ready) and their young consorts in scarlet tunics (but no beaming smiles) were adorable. Their fresh-faced presence was balanced by the addition of more mature artists, making for a believable community.

When it came to dancing, the performance was energetic, vibrant, and polished. This is the Bolshoi, after all. A highlight of act one was the czardas, a Hungarian peasant dance that finds its way into many classic ballets but is especially at home in Coppelia. This was confidently led by soloist Kristina Karasyova and first soloist Vitaly Biktimirov, two experienced dancers who matched lightning fast footwork with charm. The other czardas dancers kept pace with their breathtaking energy, and the mazurkas were equally spirited. This kind of Eastern European dancing comes across as being in the blood of the Russians, so effortless does it seem for them.

Coppelius and his Dolls

Alexei Loparevich as Coppelius: Bolshoi Ballet
Coppelius (Alexei Loparevich)

Act Two took us into the workshop of the eccentric Dr Coppelius, amusingly portrayed by Alexei Loparevich. The soloist was convincingly transformed into an old man, his tall frame lending itself perfectly to the grand gestures with which he commanded the stage.

The dolls in his workshop added plenty of variety to this act, but none had a chance to shine. As expected, the focus remained very much on Shrainer, whose imitation of Coppelia saw her become a pretty doll with a sparkle in her eye. Despite that sparkle, her on-stage personality seemed better suited to tender emotions than to the moments of mischief, but she was endearing throughout.

Act Three brought us to the final celebrations, along with the Dance of the Hours and performances by Dawn, Work, Prayer and Folly. There were also solos and a pas de deux from Shrainer and Ovcharenko. It was all very colourful and exuberant, if lacking a little in visual coherence.

Bolshoi Coppelia: The Costumes

As befits such a cheerful production, the costumes of act one were just as bright and sunny. Primary red, blue and yellow dominated, sometimes taking on more stylish deep red, gold and sky blue hues. Plenty of flowers and crisp white peasant shirts, blouses and petticoats gave it the feel of high summer. Though I wasn’t personally a fan of the cut-off military jackets of Swanhilda’s friends, overall the peasant costumes were beautiful. The intricate folk embroidery, beads, tassels, hair ribbons and sashes had all the appearance of authentic national dress.

Act Two put Swanhilda into Coppelia’s gorgeous white dress, glinting with magical hints of silver. She was accompanied by the other dolls (of both genders) in various historical and national costumes.

The final act felt more of an odd mix. The Bolshoi spokeswoman mentioned that they had used the original designs for a number of the costumes. This would explain the clashing tutus in doll pink, canary yellow, magenta and black for the Dance of the Hours. A couple of soloist costumes also seemed overly-fussy in that late 19th century style. In the background we had ballet students as cherubs in curly blonde wigs and angel wings. You get the feeling the Victorians would have loved it.

Fortunately, the peasant girls and lads of earlier, along with the background townsfolk, were a more believable addition to the scene. Swanhilda was elegant in a white tutu with crimson bodice and gold stripes on her apron. (Though should we wonder how a village girl marrying a peasant has come by so many jewels?) Frantz matched her in red breeches and top over his peasant shirt.

Artem Ovcharenko and Margarita Shrainer: Coppelia Act 3
Artem Ovcharenko and Margarita Shrainer

The Set of Coppelia at the Bolshoi Theatre

Whether or not the set was based on original plans, it worked beautifully on the Bolshoi stage. An arch of trees over the village square, a tavern to the side, and a church on a painted backdrop all graced that large space. With some clever lighting, the stage went from a sunny afternoon to dusk, and then the mischief-making of night hours.

Act two gave us the grand interior of Coppelius’ home, around the walls of which the dolls sit. In act three we returned outside, to another leafy square full of dappled light, and a rural scene on the backdrop.

A Last Word

This was a delightful production: traditional, lively and full of joy. Shrainer wouldn’t perhaps have been everyone’s choice for a live screening, many viewers expecting a ballerina with an international reputation. However, this was a real vote of confidence in her from the Bolshoi’s artistic director. It seems clear she has a bright future ahead and this performance of Coppelia gave us a chance to glimpse that future for ourselves.