Coppelia and the Demise of the Paris Opera Ballet

Most serious ballet enthusiasts have seen Coppélia or at least heard about it. It's a fun ballet that encompasses many forms of dance: character, and classical ballet. It is a clever comment on the evils of infatuation.

What is not known about Coppélia is; it was one of the last attempts to save ballet in Paris from oblivion. Ballet was losing its audience because the ballerinas were getting so powerful, and the finest male dancers were leaving to find their successes in other countries, especially in Russia. Many of the composers, and set designers were leaving the ballet scene because of the ballerinas ridiculous demands. Although men had dominated the world of ballet from the beginning, with the advent of the romantic period, the females were gaining more and more power. Without men in more prominent roles, audiences found ballet less interesting.

From 1561, when Catherine de Medici presented the first ballet, Ballet Comique de la Reine, Paris was the Mecca of Ballet, and that honor lasted 200 years. Financial support grew more difficult with only the ballerinas starring in the productions. Fighting to regain their audience after two years without a new production, Arthur Saint-Leon, a famous dancer and choreographer in Russia and France, staged a new ballet, Coppélia. It would take him two-and-a-half years of preparation before the ballet would be ready for performance. Saint-Leon was sure his new work would restore ballet to its proper place. The difficult part was finding the right dancers for the roles of Swanilda and Franz.

Swanilda was in love with Franz. Franz was in love with a doll he thought was alive. He had seen the doll sitting in the window of Dr. Coppelius, a demented scientist who thought he could bring life to his beautiful doll named Coppélia. He also had fallen in love with his creation. Saint-Leon needed a handsome young man for the part of Franz and a innocent young girl to dance the role of Swanilda. Since there were no men to dance the part of Franz, it was decided that the role would be performed by ballerina Eugenie Fiocre en travesti (a woman playing a man's part dressed as a man or vice versa ).

Although Leontine Beauguard, a ballerina of the Paris Opera, was considered for the role, it was decided she was not suited for the part of the young naive girl.

In the ballet school at the opera they found their Swanilda, a fifteen-year-old Giuseppina Bozzacchi. She was from Milan and was only in Paris to study. She was perfect for the part, mischievous - warm and sparkling - tempered with a French style. When the ballet premiered in 1870, she was an immediate success, and there was a rebirth of interest in ballet in Paris.

In mid-July the Franco-Prussian War began. By August 18th, Germans besieged the French capital, cutting it off from the outside world. The Opera closed at the end of August, and Arthur Saint-Leon died September 2nd, leaving Paris without a first rate choreographer.

Dancers had to cope the best they could. Mlle. Leontine Beauguard installed a slanted floor (resembling a raked stage) in her apartment and continued to give herself class, She also organized a group of dancers to collect food for the hungry and worked in a hospital in the basement of the Comedie Francaise. That November on her 17th birthday, Giuseppina Bozzacchi died of illness caused by hunger never getting a chance to star in another ballet.

In January 1871, the siege ended, but before the Germans left Paris they destroyed almost every public building. Somehow the opera house survived and Mlle. Beauguard revived Coppélia, dancing Swanilda. Eugenie Fiocre again danced the role of Franz. The role continued to be dance en travesti in Paris until well into the 1950s.

With many of the creative artists defecting, Ballet continued to decline. The opera house that survived the siege was burned down in 1873. A new theatre, the Palais Garnier, opened in 1873 and is still in use today. Sylvia choreographed and dance by Louis Merante as the shepherd and Rita Sangalli as Sylvia. However the ballet did not restore Paris as the Mecca of Ballet. Although ballet classes continued to be taught at Opera School, dancers had to find work where ever they could. Some danced in the operas and the others in the music halls. Ballet became a one-dimensional art form in the west, just as it was on the rise in Russia. In 1909 Sergei Diaghilev brought ballet to the West, and the rest is history.