Black Silk Dance Company, Brisbane: Coppelia (choreographed by Angela Bendall)
“Low-budget ballet” almost rates as an oxymoron; it’s up there, surely, with “Police Intelligence” and “Frankston Cultural Centre”. It comes with a silent “NOT!” But Black Silk Dance Company – newest kid on a very sparsely-populated block – coolly proves that a dancer is no less impressive in a white singlet and cotton skirt than she is in a shaggy silken tutu. And an imaginative design can be as simple as a couple of painted flats and canvas screens. You don’t always need a revolve and half a million bucks worth of Vari*Lite technology.
And there’s a lot to be said for watching ballet in a hundred-seat theatre instead of a 2000-seater. Okay, there’s not a great deal of space for grand gestures – you’ve gotta go for the glissade rather than the jeté – but it’s a rare and delightful experience to be this close to the action. As in theatre, when you’re this close there is no faking.
But the imperative, here, is at least two-fold. Black Silk Dance Company was formed (in its own words) “to create more opportunities” for Australian dancers. The company is also committed to programming work by emerging choreographers. Intriguingly, another stated objective is for those choreographers to work collaboratively with the dancers. This is a tried-and-true creative technique – choreographers seeking and integrating ideas and moves that come from the dancers in a workshop environment – but one that typically goes unacknowledged.
The company also – rather pointedly – states: “The atmosphere will be less elitist and more accessible to all people.” (Funny… of all the big budget performing arts, I would say that ballet is far and away the least elitist.)
Anyway, as far as Black Silk’s own agenda is concerned, the verdict is: so far, so good. On all counts.
Black Silk Dance Company’s blink-and-you’ve-missed-it premiere production is a terrific new version of Coppélia. Following in the footfalls of Graeme Murphy, Black Silk’s Artistic Director has given this comic classic a distinctly Australian spin. It’s E.T.A. Hoffmann with a twist of Muriel’s Wedding. Instead of Swanhilda and Franz, we have Sharlene and Bruce.
Clockwise from rear: artistic director Angela Bendall, Meegan Price, Justine Evans, Tess Flottman (lying down), Natasha Brown and Daavid Keenan (centre) as Dr Coppelius. (Photograph: Marisa Cuzzolaro)
Now, one of the great gifts that Graeme Murphy has made to ballet is psychological directness. This was seen, most recently, is his scintillating revision of Swan Lake, in which the Baron von Rothbart and his daughter Odile were combined into a single character, the Baroness von Rothbart, who plays “old flame” Camilla to Siegfried and Odette’s Charles and Di.
Not only did that allow audiences to connect with the story anew, it also gave the young dancers something to hang their performances on. Swan Lake was no longer about one-dimensional good and evil, as such, but shades of ethical grey. Who can forget the heartbreaking complexity and subtlety in Annabel Bronner Reid’s Baroness?
When the Australian Ballet tackled Coppélia a few years back, the girls playing Swanhilda’s girlfriends simply didn’t know how to play teenage girls! They had nothing to connect to in the story. There are no such problems here, in Black Silk’s version. The girls are as loyal and two-faced, as feisty and bitchy, as funny and sad as real girls! Pouty, whacky, petty, snide, mean… you name it!
The domestic details in Angela Bendall’s production are simple and touching. When the gifts are being delivered before the wedding, one of the girls bringing them in gives each box a little shake. A tiny detail, but a goodie. (The gifts all turn out to be toasters, of course!)
When the stand-off happens outside Dr Coppelius’s place – should they break in or not? – one girl shrugs a “What. Ever.”… so natural, so funny. Likewise, the throwing of the bouquet after the wedding (sorry, have I spoiled the ending for you?) is a classic scrum. Violent, competitive, winner-take-all. Brilliant.
This Coppélia might be camp, but it isn’t a travesty. It’s clear that Bendall and her team actually believe in ballet. They also believe that it can be better: more vivid, more real.
And this particular ballet gets better and better as it goes on. The second act (in which the girls and Bruce break into Dr Coppelius’s home) is a delight. One by one, the oh-so-patient dolls come to life and deliver knock-out cameos: Tess Flottmann in a fearless turn as the Unfinished Doll; Justine Evans as the fan-twirling and stylish China Doll; Natasha Brown as the incomparably sexy flamenco-shoed Cabaret Doll; and Meegan Price as an electrifying, high-kicking Can Can Doll, going from zero to one hundred in a single step.
Zero to a hundred in a single step...
Meegan Price (photograph: Marisa Cuzzolaro)
The final act is a crowd-pleaser, too. Sharlene – flanked by her bridesmaids Billy-Jo (Renee Spicer) and Kelly-Ann (Monique Singh) – claims her man at last.
Jane Eastwood is a stunning Sharlene/Swanhilda. She knows what she wants – though I can’t for the life of me work out what it is she sees in her gormless, drunkard, fickle, two-timing ‘boyf’ – and she does everything that needs to be done to get him. Eastwood is a believable and expressive actor. She’s first among equals in this cast of eleven.
If you want a close-up look at the Doc's chin, click on the image!
Don’t imagine, for a moment, that I’m going light on a new company because it “means well” and is doing its thing without a cent from government or private sponsors. This is an unusually entertaining piece, done well. Aside from the antics at the very beginning of the show (why oh why oh why do we teach our performers how to fence but we don’t teach them how to play drunk?!?!?!) this Coppélia doesn’t flag for a moment. Three acts, two intervals, and hardly a dull second.
Shame it’s such a short season.