Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Les sylphides arr. Roy Douglas (1909) [30:14]
Choreography: Mikhail Fokine
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Irving
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Coppélia (1870) adapted for TV by Margaret Dale [48:48]
Choreography: Charles Nuitter and Arthur Saint-Léon
Swanilda … Nadia Nerina
Dr Coppelius … Robert Helpmann
Franz … Donald Britton
London Symphony Orchestra/John Lanchbery
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle Act 2 pas de deux (1841) [17:56]
Choreography: after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot
Giselle … Margot Fonteyn
Albrecht … Rudolf Nureyev
Pro Arte Orchestra/Marcus Dods
rec. broadcast 6 April 1956 (Les Sylphides), 27 October 1957 (Coppélia) and 11 June 1962 (Giselle) Recording dates and locations not specified for Les Sylphides and Coppélia; Giselle recorded at BBC Studio, 2 June 1962
Picture format: 4:3
Region code: 0
DVD format: NTSC
Sound: Enhanced mono
ICA CLASSICS DVD ICAD 5058 [99:46]
The widespread plaudits for ICA Classics’s series of BBC TV ballet recordings have been well deserved. Some time ago I very warmly welcomed a DVD that included a Les sylphides from 1953 and a 1958 Giselle (see here). Since then I have seen – and have been delighted by – several other releases in this series: Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes dancing in the Tchaikovsky ballets (ICAD 5050); the Kirov and Bolshoi companies in Treasures of the Russian ballet (ICAD 5074); and a double bill of John Cranko’s The lady and the fool and Pineapple Poll (see here). I eagerly await the imminent release of a 1962 La fille mal gardée that was much acclaimed at the time.
Most of this new release centres on the utterly charismatic Nadia Nerina, a 1950s star ballerina who sadly faded from the limelight in the following decade as Margot Fonteyn’s career gained an unexpected new lease of life when she partnered Rudolf Nureyev.
There is, though, another “star” of this release; the BBC producer Margaret Dale (see the outlines of her fascinating life story here and here). Dale – who had herself danced Coppélia’s Swanilda – was responsible for the earlier two of these transmissions. She transformed television coverage of ballet in Britain and has left behind an artistic legacy of rare importance.
The disc’s undoubted highlight – pace any Fonteyn/Nureyev fans who will be entranced by their pas de deux from Giselle - is Coppélia. It is not a full length version, but one that has been very skilfully adapted to take account of both the time constraints of television and the non-specialist viewing audience. Hence the final “happy resolution” scene, in which Dr Coppelius is recompensed for his broken toys and Swanilda marries her Franz, is jettisoned entirely, leaving the audience with a much richer and more complex set of emotions at the revised conclusion. The remainder of the score is cunningly trimmed too, so that it becomes an irresistible sequence of foot-tapping rum-ti-tum melodies, each following hard on the heels - or perhaps that should be the pointes - of the last.
The dancing is tremendous. The role of Swanilda calls for exuberance and vivacity rather than any great depths of pathos and that suits the charismatic and perky Miss Nerina to a T. Admittedly, she appears to tire towards the end of her sequence of fouettés en tournant in the Swanilda with village girls variation, but that evident fallibility is rather endearing in an otherwise pretty faultless performance. As Swanilda’s straying swain Franz, Donald Britton exhibits more masculinity and strength than we often find in 1950s British male dancers. You’d almost think, in fact, that he’s modelling himself on Gene Kelly as he swaggers around the village square in the variation for Franz with village boys. Many of the supporting dancers make strong impressions too, with special mention going to Swanilda’s four girlfriends. Unfortunately, the way that the final credits are laid out makes it difficult to identify them individually.
What really adds to this production is the quality of the acting as well as the dancing. The many TV close-ups show that all the principals are truly living their parts. Just watch Nadia Nerina as she displays a wide range of essentially comedic emotions, while all the time managing to look as pleased at Punch at the whole caboodle surrounding her. Her constantly changing facial features communicate her feelings most effectively: to take just one instance, a single 10-seconds sequence (from 33:19 until 33:29) shows her convincingly transformed from affected nonchalance, via puzzlement and pouting, to sudden inspiration. We are never left in no doubt as to whether Swanilda is, at any point in time, sulking, jealous, curious, indignant, fearful, flirtatious, mischievous or merely amused by the shenanigans going on all around her. Miss Nerina’s facial contortions in Coppelius’s workshop are a particular delight and she is ably supported once again by the four very well individualised girlfriends as well as by some particularly characterful “toys”.
Robert Helpmann also gives an outstanding performance as Dr Coppelius. His face bookends the film as the subject of both the opening and closing tracking shots. Fortunately, his amazingly flexible features and wide range of expressions can successfully carry off the tightest of close-ups. He makes particularly effective use of his eyes - which are cleverly lit in the last few seconds to suggest a tear - as well as his mouth and his very expressive fingers. Unsurprisingly, he moves superbly well too as he scuttles around the set like an abstracted spider. He is equally as adept at pulling off bits of comic business - whether reading his book of spells, “directing” the doll Coppélia’s movements or attacking Franz - as he is at inducing a real sense of pathos and sympathy for his character in the ballet’s closing moments.
If Nerina’s and Helpmann’s acting styles have stood the test of time relatively successfully, Donald Britton’s approach does look a little dated. With something of the Saturnine looks of contemporary movie stars Anthony Steel and Sean Connery, Britton exudes masses of confident charisma. Clearly something of a cheeky chappie, he has a good sense of comedy and exhibits no qualms at all in playing shamelessly to the camera, whether fluttering his lashes (35:29) or looking directly into the lens in a deliberately contrived matinée idol pose (48:00). As a change from the many effete, bloodless dancers of the time, though, I thought him a real treat and he adds a substantial presence to the cast.
The corps de ballet has quite a bit to do in Coppélia, what with the villagers’ mazurka and czardas. The final cast-list notes the assistance of the “Western Ballet Theatre” – a name that now appears, as far as I can tell, to have been adopted by a dance company based in Puerto Rico – and the equally-lost “Opoczno Polish Group” who, I assume, contributed their ethnic Terpsichorean expertise.
This appears to have been a production that was broadcast live and one or two small slips, which would undoubtedly have been corrected had retakes been possible, inevitably intrude. As well as Miss Nerina’s slight technical glitch mentioned above, the director missed a trick – and may well have confused viewers unfamiliar with the story - by not showing us clearly that Swanilda hides behind the curtain in Coppelius’s workshop. More amusingly, Franz is seen presumably intending to knock at Swanilda’s front door but instead knocking ineffectively on the adjacent masonry. There are also a few instances where dancers who are clearly not supposed to be in shot can be seen lurking behind the scenery: 33:57, 36:00 and 36:23.
Apart from those minor fluffs, this is a very well-made production. It has a big advantage in that it takes place in a properly designed and equipped television studio and not on a stage. Highly mobile cameras, operated by clearly very experienced BBC staff and presumably directed to the very last inch by Miss Dale herself, can therefore range far and wide among all the on-set action – and there is certainly plenty of that because in this production no-one stands still for any length of time at all.
We also get plenty of judiciously chosen fine detail, including a few tellingly felicitous vignettes such as the couple of old codgers engrossed in playing a game of drafts – in time to the music! – while the rest of the villagers dance energetically away (40:40). I liked the cameramen’s clever use of reduced depth of field to draw our attention to a particular point: 32:45 and 40:13. Maybe I’m imagining it but the sequence of Swanilda and the girls climbing the staircase in Coppelius’s house (53:06 to 53:33) added an amusing moment by seeming to be shot in a way very reminiscent of old German Expressionist 1920s horror films.
Conscious of the amount of space that I have – completely deservedly - given to Coppélia, I turn much more briefly to the other two items on offer. Of this 1956 recording of Les sylphides, even the booklet notes express a reservation, describing it as “one of the oldest recordings featuring Nadia Nerina in the BBC archives. Due to the age and condition of the film, the level of possible restoration work was limited. In spite of certain technical constraints, this performance is of exceptional artistic and historical interest and value.” While Nerina’s many fans will no doubt want to add it to their collections, it pales in comparison with the production values of the Delibes ballet and will be of more limited interest to the general buyer of ballet DVDs.
The Fonteyn/Nureyev Giselle collaboration, on the other hand, is of obviously greater and wider interest. It documents the earliest stage of an artistic partnership that was to break new ground in the development of ballet outside the USSR. Nureyev not only revitalised Fonteyn’s fading career but was a major transformative force who almost singlehandedly changed the way in which male dancers performed and were perceived in Britain. Contemporary audiences were struck by the way in which he changed the focus of the Giselle story from the forsaken innocent girl to the morally compromised duke. They were even more discombobulated by the sheer and surprisingly open degree of sexuality that he brought to the role – a feature that would make him something of a media superstar and a key player in the permissive Zeitgeist of the 1960s.
All eyes here will be focused primarily on Nureyev as he gives a flavour of the stage performance that had made his name with London audiences just a few months before. To be fair, Fonteyn also makes a positive impression, though as we only see her here dancing Giselle’s Act 2 blank-faced dead spirit, her opportunities to play to the gallery and to make a similarly showy, histrionic impression are far more limited.
All three productions on this DVD are supported by very good orchestral playing. Conductors Robert Irving and John Lanchbery were closely associated with ballet throughout their careers, while Marcus Dods was an experienced conductor who worked not only at Sadler’s Wells but also frequently in film and television. All three do excellent jobs, with the palm going to Lanchbery who has, it is true, the most ear-catching of the scores and an obviously top-flight recording crew at his service.
As already noted, picture quality is at its most problematic – though it is still quite watchable - in Les sylphides but it improves dramatically after that. In case you had not already made the natural assumption, all three films were made before the BBC began broadcasting its television programmes in colour.
ICA Classics label the sound as “enhanced mono”, which they explain thus: “During the remastering of this original mono programme, the audio signal has been restored to give a wider and more open sound which, though not equivalent to a stereo recording, improves the quality of the original source and provides a richer sound experience.” I can’t pretend to understand the technical side of all that, but I certainly found the sound of Coppélia and Giselle to be more than acceptable in every respect.
These films also offer conclusive proof of the huge change that has occurred in broadcasting in the last fifty-odd years. In the 1950s the BBC was still adhering to Lord Reith’s proclaimed mission of educating and enlightening the general population. Today, on the other hand, television all too often aims for the lowest common denominator and gives far more air-time to flat-footed Saturday night celebrity novelty-dancers than to showcasing the hard-won artistry of prima ballerinas or premier danseurs.
This new release takes us back to that earlier age and provides important evidence for students of British ballet in a transitional period. Two of the productions are of the greatest historical – as well as of considerable artistic – interest. For the general audience it will be the entrancing production of Coppélia justifies, entirely on its own, the acquisition of this hugely enjoyable DVD.
This hugely enjoyable DVD.