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8 July, 2020

 

A long term favourite with ballet audiences, the 19th century classic Coppélia takes centre stage again as part of The Australian Ballet’s 2020 digital season. We reflect on the work of leading Australian designers Kenneth Rowell and Kristian Fredrikson who have helped bring the many charms of this fairy tale ballet to the stage.

 

Set design by Kenneth Rowell for Coppélia

 

Set design by Kenneth Rowell for ‘Coppélia’, Borovansky Ballet, 1960
Gift of Victoria Rowell, Cultural Gifts Program 2004
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Coppélia is based on a short-story by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, called The Sandman, which was published in 1815. Despite the sinister undertones of the original narrative, the ballet was created as a comedy that unfolded around the central character of Dr Coppelius and his quest to bring a mechanical doll to life. It was first presented at the Théâtre Impérial l’Opéra in Paris in 1870 and has become a treasured part of classical ballet repertoire all around the world.

Coppélia was introduced to The Australian Ballet in 1962 by the company’s founding Artistic Director, Peggy van Praagh, during its inaugural season. She developed a strong association with the work after performing the lead role of Swanilda with the Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet in London in 1942. Van Praagh introduced Coppélia to Melbourne’s Borovansky Ballet when she took over as Artistic Director of the company in 1960, and it was this production that was presented by The Australian Ballet in 1962.

 

Barbara Chambers as Swanilda and Karl Welander as Franz, Coppélia

 

Barbara Chambers as Swanilda and Karl Welander as Franz, ‘Coppélia’
The Australian Ballet, 1962
Photograph by Studio Commercial Photography
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 1998
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

This production was designed by Kenneth Rowell, who began his career in the late 1940s designing sets and costumes for companies such as the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet. He moved to London in 1950 and continued to work across ballet, opera, theatre and the visual arts in the UK and Australia for over 40 years. His work often featured hand-painted elements which can be seen in the costume he created for Dr. Coppelius worn by Robert Helpmann. Helpmann’s comic portrayal of the eccentric toy-maker helped establish this production as a family favourite for generations of Australian audiences.

 

Costume (with hand-painted trousers) designed by Kenneth Rowell for Dr Coppelius, Coppélia

 

Costume (with hand-painted trousers) designed by Kenneth Rowell for Dr Coppelius, ‘Coppélia’
The Australian Ballet, 1969
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 1998
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

In 1979 van Praagh turned to film and theatre director George Ogilvie to create a more dramatic interpretation of Coppélia. Ogilvie responded by drawing on the gothic origins of the story to create a more menacing Dr Coppelius whose delusional behaviour is offset by light-hearted moments of relief from the mischievous Swanilda. This production was designed by Kristian Fredrikson and remains true to the designer’s vision over 40 years later.

New Zealand born, Fredrikson had been creating costumes for The Australian Ballet since 1964 when he was commissioned to design Aurora’s Wedding for the company. His artful use of fabric and the ability to combine delicate textures added a level of opulence to his costumes and he went on to create lavish productions for dance, opera, theatre and film over four decades. His tutus for this staging of Coppélia are considered to be some of the most beautiful in The Australian Ballet wardrobe.

 

Costume design by Kristian Fredrikson for ‘Prayer’, Coppélia

 

Costume design by Kristian Fredrikson for ‘Prayer’, ‘Coppélia’
The Australian Ballet, 1979
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 2008
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Costume design by Kristian Fredrikson for, ‘Twelve Hours of the Night’, Act Three, Coppélia

 

Costume design by Kristian Fredrikson for, ‘Twelve Hours of the Night’, Act Three, ‘Coppélia’
The Australian Ballet, 1979
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 2008
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The Australian Ballet’s free cinema-quality digital season brings their full-length performances to Australians at home. Coppélia (Saint-Léon) is available 9 – 23 July.

Find out more about The Australian Ballet Collection at the Australian Performing Arts Collection.

 

Margot Anderson
Curator, Dance and Opera
Australian Performing Arts Collection

 

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