Old pro's the ace up this ballet's sleeve, writes Bernadette Rae

Coppelia

or "

The Girl with the Enamel Eyes

", turns 145 on May 25, the day of her premiere in 1870 at the Theatre Imperial de l'Opera in Paris, in the presence of Napoleon III. This month she will celebrate her anniversary with a whirl around the Bruce Mason stage in Takapuna, courtesy of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, just ahead of her Aotea Centre season.

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Coppelia harks from the period just after the golden age of French Romanticism, which gave us La Sylphide, Giselle and their ilk, and is altogether lighter in mood, striking a distinctly comic attitude and peopled with down-to-earth, humanly flawed characters, rather than the wraiths and fairy-tale princes of the ballets that went before.

With her cast of playful young villagers, in love and up to endless mischief, Coppelia is no newcomer to New Zealand.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet first performed Coppelia in 1955, under Danish-born Paul Gnatt's direction, and has returned regularly since then, a guest of just about every one of RNZB's artistic directors.

A young Jon Trimmer notably starred - alternating between the roles of Dr Coppelius and Franz - in Russell Kerr's 1964 version, designed by Raymond Boyce. In 2004 Gary Harris and Sherilyn Kennedy restaged Coppelia with costumes designed by New Zealand-born Kristian Fredrikson, originally made for the Australian Ballet production of 1979.

This time Coppelia graces our stages, with choreography updated by current ballet master - and another Dane - Martin Vedel. Vedel is undaunted by the work's history and fame in his claim that this will be a "unique" production and "adapted to audiences without compromising style, quality and entertainment".

The ace up his sleeve, he declares, is Sir Jon Trimmer, who plays Dr Coppelius - a workaholic outsider and genius obsessed with creating artificial life in the form of extraordinary automatoms.

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15 May, 2014 8:45am
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"When Jon T is in the studio, everyone else is learning," Vedel declares. "And even if audiences don't understand the actual balletic mime, they will get the body language."

Vedel has also made some adjustments to ensure the storyline is clear in Act 1, introducing a three-way conversation to replace an over-long monologue. Dr Coppelius also acquires a fantastic assistant, Limbless, in Act II.

The Danish connection runs strong. "Jon T worked with the people who were my teachers in the Royal Danish Ballet," he says. "The tradition is carried from generation to generation and it is great when you are doing these classic works to have someone who has had all that experience - and is so generous in passing it on."

Characterisation is vital in a light-hearted work like Coppelia, he says. "You have to work with everything, you have to bring some depth, so every role is important and has to bring forward a true character."

Vedel joined the company in January last year. He was born in Greenland, 43 years ago, but moved to Denmark with his family aged 5 to ensure he received a good education. But he only ever wanted to be a dancer. He began lessons at age 6, was quickly identified as a talent and won a place at the Royal Danish Ballet School - entailing another family move. He danced with the Royal Danish Ballet from 1988-2000, rising to soloist, then as a principal with the Bejart Ballet in Lausanne, Switzerland, for another decade. He was a guest teacher for English National Ballet in 2010, and ballet master at the Royal Ballet of Flanders from 2011-12.

"I always wanted to come to New Zealand," he says of his position with the RNZB, and he applied immediately on seeing the job advertised.

"I knew Ethan Stiefel already," he says. "He asked me, 'Are you sure about this?' But I was and I do love it here - for the country itself, the people and the work. The company is of international standard and has wonderful artists.

"I can relate to Dr C," he adds, "because I am a total workaholic too. I basically don't do anything else. But this company is so wonderful. I enter every day with great expectations - and I leave fulfilled."

Performance

What:

Coppelia with the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Where and when: Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, May 24-25; Aotea Centre, May 28-31