Dance has a strange relationship with its past. No art form looks back more, fretting away at keeping the detail of past performances alive. Yet in no other sphere is it so difficult to preserve exactly what a creator intended: styles and tastes change, steps get forgotten, embellishments are added.
Look at Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of Giselle for the Bolshoi; it incorporates touches from a production documented in 1860, as well as adding a new section of his own choreography, in pursuit of something that seems authentic. Or take the Royal Ballet’s production of Coppélia, first danced at the Paris Opera in 1870, which arrived in Britain in 1933 in a version that had been reimagined by Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti, brought from Russia by Nicholas Sergeyev and then restaged by the company’s founder, Ninette de Valois, in 1940.
Her version of this story of a lively lass called Swanilda and her errant fiance, Franz, who falls in love with a doll called Coppélia, was once a staple of the repertory – it often felt like the only ballet I saw as a child – emphasising as it did the quick feet and characterful drama of De Valois’s company as they established an English style. But it’s 13 years since the Royal last danced it.
Its arrival on the Christmas stage is a gift for dancers and audiences alike, an old-fashioned package full of glorious oddity. There’s a final act of showing off, which includes national dances, solos for Aurora, the spirit of dawn (danced with musicality to her fingertips by Fumi Kaneko) and a character called Prayer. There’s also some deeply beautiful choreography for Swanilda and her friends, who have a pretty habit of trailing around the stage holding hands, and a score by Delibes that lifts the heart.
It’s essentially a domestic ballet, rooted in village life, evoked with wit by Osbert Lancaster’s picture-book settings and costumes that add embroidered bodices and pinnies for the women and dashing cloaks for the men to the more conventional tutus and tights. The strangeness in the story comes from the inventor Dr Coppélius, who fills his locked workshop with human-sized dolls and tries to steal the life out of Franz’s body to bring Coppélia to life.
Gary Avis plays Coppélius as one of life’s loners; slightly sinister in his obsessions, but neither as frightening nor as tormented as he can be when Swanilda breaks into his workshop and takes Coppélia’s place, in dances of jerky virtuosity. In this, as in everything, Francesca Hayward is a picture of utter charm, making dancing look as if it is the most natural way to communicate. From her very first solo, when she pouts and sulks as the doll in the window refuses to return her cheery greeting, she turns Swanilda into a young woman who knows her own mind; her disappointment when Franz (a lively Alexander Campbell) fails to pay her enough attention is touching, her eventual capitulation to love entrancing.
She finds, too, the grace notes in the dancing: perfectly placed arabesques, quick jumps, and – most gorgeous of all – little turns in attitude when she twists under Campbell’s arm while staying elegantly balanced on pointe. Hayward is about to become very famous as a star of the film version of Cats. If you want to see her in her natural element, head for the Opera House. She’s one for the ages, a dancer who can take the ballets of the past and make them live for today.
• Coppélia is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 7 January 2020