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Monday 22 September 2014

Passionate artistes ignite life in mannequin and world of ballet

Meeting the company, which is to perform Coppelia in Dublin, has Madeleine Keane dancing with joy

A moribund blonde sits in her pale blue frock, head listing to one side, a stiff, painted mannequin. Then the music of Leo Delibes and the machinations of Doctor Coppelius ignite life in this beautiful doll and so the magic that is the ballet of Coppelia begins.

Happily for devotees of this dance form, Coppelia is coming to Dublin next month. It will be performed by the renowned Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Grand Canal Theatre. One of the world's leading ballet companies, it has its roots in Ireland as it originated from the Sadler's Wells Ballet which was founded by Irish-born dancer Dame Ninette de Valois.

Today this international company is based at the Birmingham Hippodrome and tours extensively. Recently, the company completed a three-week tour of Japan; David Bintley is artistic director of both Birmingham and the National Ballet of Japan. When we meet, he is playing Sudoku. "It's a feast or a famine," he laughs, but one suspects that it's mostly a feast for this Yorkshire-born dancer and choreographer who was stage-struck at the age of four. He worked under the great Sir Peter Wright, Birmingham's Director Laureate who choreographed this production of Coppelia. Bintley is passionate about his country's fine tradition, believing that British ballet "leads the world in narrative dance and production values".

Watching the matinee later at Manchester's impressive Lowry Centre, it's hard to disagree with him. This Coppelia is a joy -- funny, moving, exquisitely executed and a visual feast. We have already been backstage where Johnny Westall-Eyre, head of lighting has explained that though his job is technical , "lighting is all about creative input and making a set become a show". And he's just one of the team we meet who conspire to create a sumptuous, enchanting performance.

Spending a day with this company is a delight. The cliche of one big happy family is true -- they really are a close, friendly hard-working team committed to their art. And the ballet dancers are about as far removed from the neurotic narcissists portrayed in Black Swan as you can imagine.

Matthew Lawrence, a laid-back Kiwi who brings mischief and charm to the role of Franz, (the lusty, young lover whose head is turned by the beguiling doll), demythologises the myth of the barmy dancer: "You try to live as normal a life as possible, dance is not just a sport it's an art. It's all about channelling your nerve -- you don't want to burn out."

His colleague, first soloist Jonathan Payn, is eloquent about the challenges faced by today's dancers -- the huge amount of training and discipline required, the need to reinvent yourself. "Around your mid-30s, you have to think about the future." So increasingly, he takes on character roles (he is an engaging, charismatic Burgomaster in Coppelia), teaches, choreographs and administrates.

After some hours spent in the dreamy world of dancers and choreographers, it's time to meet company manager Paul Grist, the vital link between the administrative staff and management. "Where the company is, I am," he says. This likeable, practical man who once worked with Opera Ireland as stage manager, is responsible for the logistics of taking a ballet company and all the bits that go with it to another country. "With Coppelia, we've five trailers which carry everything from sets, costumes, lighting to washing machines and tumbler dryers -- tutus need special washing."

And what of managing a crowd of high-spirited artistes? "It's like surrogate fatherhood," he laughs.

Traditionally ballet companies end their season around mid-July and so their end of term celebrations will be held in Dublin. The Irish visitors are happy to advise on party venues. One suspects the surrogate father will be kept busy.

Birmingham Royal Ballet -- Coppelia is on at the Grand Canal Theatre, Grand Canal Square, Docklands, Dublin 2, from July 7-9 (four performances only). Tickets from €30. www.grandcanal theatre.ie or (0818) 719 377

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