How a Dubai dance studio is reimagining classic ballets for children: 'We wanted to make it accessible'

'My First Ticket To Coppelia' reworks the classic 19th-century tale with a young audience in mind

A classic ballet is coming to Dubai, but reimagined for a modern young audience.

An adaptation of Coppelia will take place at The Theatre at the Mall of the Emirates on Friday and Saturday, November 6 and 7, and has been specifically designed with children in mind.

Much like the 19th-century original, My First Ticket to Coppelia tells the story of a young girl, Swanilda, who is enamoured with a boy named Franz. After Franz falls in love with a dancing doll he spots in the window of a doctor's home, mistaking it for a real girl, Swanilda takes her place in the hope of capturing his attention.

While the original production goes on for more than two hours, My First Ticket to Coppelia will have a runtime of an hour. The ballet, which will host four performances across the weekend, is meant to introduce audiences over the age of 2 to the dance form, making it the first professional ballet show in the region aimed at children and families.

Helen Ainsworth, artistic director at The National Ballet Studio, who choreographed and directed the ballet, says she reworked the story to include shorter scenes and a simplified plot so that young audiences would have no trouble keeping up.

A screen will also be lowered over the stage before each act, with text that will explain the events that are about to unfold.

“Parents can read the text aloud to their children if they’d like,” Ainsworth says. “The aim is to make sure children are keeping up with the story as they see it being danced, so there’s no doubt about what’s going to happen.”

While most key elements in the adaptation pay tribute to the original work, Ainsworth did take some liberties with the ending.

“I wanted the story to wrap up with a moral,” she says.

In the original ballet, Dr Coppelius, the inventor of the doll, wants to bring his creation to life by mystically transferring the spirit of another person into the lifelike model. After the doctor puts Franz to sleep, with the aim of transferring the boy's life force to his work, Swanilda pretends to come to life as the doll to save her love's life. She destroys the doctor's workshop before making an escape with Franz.

While the adaptation remains truthful to the original, it also shows Franz and Swanilda feeling guilty for destroying the doctor’s office.

“They realise he’s a real person with feelings and that they shouldn’t have behaved this way so they apologise. The moral is that if you behave badly, you must apologise. And that old people deserve to be treated with respect.”

Eleven professional dancers from Dubai’s National Ballet Studio will take part in the performance.

While the team discussed the option of bringing dancers from abroad, Ainsworth says there was a “fantastic pool of local talent and it wasn’t necessary to bring someone in". "We have amazing dancers here," she says.

While this year has taken a toll on many aspects of our lives – from our mental health to our daily activities – it is vital to expose children to a wide range of art forms, Ainsworth adds.

"It's important, especially in these times, to keep producing live performances and art for children, so that they have that normality.”

That was her primary drive for bringing the story of Coppelia to the stage, deciding that "this was going to be our first show and it is going to be for children, especially since they've been indoors for such a long time".

This weekend's performances will mark the first of the My First Ticket To series. The National Ballet Studio is already planning to bring the story of Cinderella to The Theatre in February, followed by a reimagining of a Shakespeare play, all aimed at a young audience.

Ainsworth, who has three children of her own, says she wanted ballet to be "accessible".

"I don't want children to be scared of it. I don't want them to lose focus. A traditional ballet can take place over two to three hours. It can be too much for children. If we want our children to read, we don't start by reading them War and Peace. We start with a children's book."

My First Ticket to Coppelia will take place at 11am and 3pm on Friday, November 6, and Saturday, November 7. Tickets start at Dh75 and can be purchased at Platinumlist and Virgin Megastore.