Coppélia: tears and pain behind the laughters

Coppélia is one of the most popular productions in the ballet universe, due to the lovely music by Leo Delibes and its light plot. However, its backstage is full of tears.

Created by Arthur Saint-Léon, at the time heading both Ballet Imperial, in Russia, and Paris Opera, in France, Coppélia took years to be completed as he was traveling through both countries to worth in both companies. Before Coppélia, among many brilliant works, the choreographer created as well the iconic Giselle, dramatic and brilliant.

Coppélia is, in its heart, the opposite of Giselle. Meant to be light and funny and fun, the plot is inspired by a tale by  E. T. Hoffman, that tells the story of a strange doll maker who dreams to bring life to his puppet, Coppélia. He is stopped by the smart, jealous, and proud heroine, Swanilda. Coppélia anticipated other “puppet” ballets, such as The Nutcracker and Petrouchka.

When the ballet finally premiered, in 1870, it was a hit. The road to it has been painful and full of setbacks.

The original Swanilda, as Arthur Saint Leon envisioned, was the German ballerina Adèle Grantzow, who at the time was a star at Bolshoi. She dedicated herself to the creation of the role, but as it was years, in the midst of the work, she was injured and forced to stop. The choreographer started a search for her replacement and found his muse in the teenager Giuseppina Bozzacchi.


Giuseppina was not a professional dancer yet. She was just 16 years old and had started to dance in her native Milan, under the supervision of Amina Boschetti, before moving to Paris when she was 15. She was so talented and promising that she enchanted the famous Arthur Saint Leon and, merely at 16, was given the opportunity that very few dancers ever had. A ballet was created for her by a genius.

As expected, Coppélia‘s success made Giuseppina a star. Even emperor Napoleon III applauded her performance. She seemed destined to become on of ballet’s new legends, but the dream soon was over.

Only 18 nights into the season, France and Prussia went to war and the country was shut down. Not long after, the city of Paris was under siege. Arthur Saint Leon had a fatal stroke, at 49 years old. But the sorrows were only beginning.

Giuseppina refused to leave Paris when she had the chance. With the theaters closed, dancers didn’t get paid and she started to have trouble eating or even living. Weak due to the lack of food, she was one of the victims of the smallpox contamination. At the time, it could easily turn into a deadly disease. Defenseless and without proper care, the fever increased and she had no means to pay for treatment. On her 17th birthday, the young dancer tragically died. Her name, alongside Emma Livry, became one of the sad legends of unfulfilled careers.

To complete things, not long after, Adèle Grantzow also became very willing and, as a result, had to amputate one of her legs. At least Eugene Fiocre, the woman who danced dressed as a man in the role of Franz, didn’t have a sad end.


Marius Petipa adapted the ballet for the Imperial Ballet and it became incredibly popular in Russia. Since 1981, Theatro Municipal Corps of Ballet of Rio dances the 1971’s American Ballet Theatre version, signed by Enrique Martinez and created for Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn.


One of the most creative versions of the ballet is Roland Petit‘s, in which Dr. Coppélius is less of a villain and more like a “Fred Astaire”.

Alexandra Danilova was one of the most famous Swanildas and we saw a brief scene of Moira Shearer in the role of The Red Shoes as well.

See Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland

And genius Roland Petit

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