Simply Ballet History

The First Swanhilda

Coppélia (sometimes subtitled The Girl with the Enamel Eyes) is a comic ballet from 1870 originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon to the music of Léo Delibes.  The love story follows a couple (Franz and Swanhilda) and a magical toymaker (Dr. Coppélius) trying to bring a doll to life (Coppélia).  It eventually became the most performed ballet at the Opera. 

Coppélia premiered on 25 May 1870 at the Paris Opera, with the 16-year-old Giuseppina Bozzacchi in the principal role of Swanhilda and ballerina Eugénie Fiocre playing the part of Frantz en travesti. Modern-day productions are traditionally derived from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa and Enrico Cechetti for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg in the late 19th century.

Australia first encountered Coppélia in 1913 when Adeline Genée, former President of the Royal Academy of Dance, brought the ballet on tour with the Imperial Russian Ballet.  In 1946, the Borovansky Ballet (precursor to the current Australian Ballet) staged a version, and in 1958 Sir Robert Helpmann returned to Australia with the Royal Ballet and danced the role of Dr. Coppélius.

Shortly after the founding of the Australian Ballet Company in 1962, then director Dame Peggy Van Praagh created the iconic version the is still in the company’s repertoire today.  The full ballet is currently available to view on ABC iView.

Pictured: 16-year-old Giuseppina Bozzacchi, and Dame Peggy Van Praagh as Swanhilda