Coppélia has always been a misleading title for a 19th-century ballet in which the plot device, a mechanical doll, has a very minor role. In conventional productions, the inanimate Coppélia performer (often a student dancer) isn't even credited in the cast list. The automaton is named after her creator, Doctor Coppélius, a Pygmalion figure who longs to bring her to life. The original 1870 ballet is really about the briefly troubled romance between villagers Swanhilda and Franz, ending happily in celebrations of their wedding.
Scottish Ballet's updated version, given its premiere during the Edinburgh Festival in August 2022, transforms the story into a Silicon Valley morality tale. Doctor Coppélius (Bruno Micchiardi) is the arrogant founder and CEO of a high-tech company, NuLife. His ambition is to turn an Artificial Intelligence avatar, his Coppélia, into a perfect simulated human robot. Swanhilda (Constance Devernay) is an investigative journalist sent to interview him about the implications of his technological advances. She brings along her fiancé, Franz (Jerome Barnes), too clueless and handsome to be a jobbing journalist. He's going to fall for artificial Coppélia.
The ballet's joint creators, informally known as Jess and Morgs, are Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple. Friends since meeting as students at Central School of Ballet in London, they have worked together for 15 years, combining dance and film on TV and other channels as well as on stage. During lockdown, their streamed collaborations with Scottish Ballet and English National Ballet performers were a delight for viewers stuck indoors, longing for witty entertainment. The two of them share credits as directors and choreographers for their film and stage productions. For Coppélia, commissioned by Scottish Ballet's director Christopher Hampson, they were joined by dramaturg Jeff James, who wrote the voice-over text for Swanhilda's interviews with Coppélius.
Jess and Morgs are firm believers in clear storytelling, aided by projected film and live camerawork – and words, if necessary. The onstage cameraman in Coppélia is company member Rimbaud Patron, dancer and photographer, who moves among the cast, confounding audience perceptions of live and recorded images. These appear on different levels of the versatile white box set (designed by Bengt Gomér). The music, played live by Scottish Ballet's orchestra, combines snatches of Léo Délibes' original ballet score with dramatic futuristic sounds by Mikael Karlsson and Michael P. Atkinson. The action takes place in a high-tech complex with offices, a laboratory, an interface machine, a gym, and a guest bedroom.
When Coppélius first presents his avatar on screen, she fails to function as a convincingly human robot. Frustrated, he commands Swanhilda and Franz to stay overnight for a second demonstration the next day. While Franz sleeps, Swanhilda penetrates the laboratory, discovering experimental prototypes of Coppélia before she is disturbed by a security alarm. The android look-alikes have extra pairs of arms, making them resemble alien insects. The key gesture of a single arm raised in greeting by the initial avatar has already been established as a motif, entrancing Franz but not Swanhilda. In a tellingly choreographed pas de deux, she can't make him use his head rather than his loins.
A corps of 16 dancers serves as Coppélius's acolytes, scientists, and identikit androids. As NuLife staff, they move robotically in unison, even when partying in silly hats and sinister masks. During the dancing, Coppélius contrives to drug Franz, hoping to use his life force to animate artificial Coppélia. Meanwhile, Swanhilda has discovered the workings of the interface machine, enabling her to slip inside it and ‘become' Coppélia. The deluded doctor is of course delighted, especially when she turns out to be sexually voracious. Now on pointe, wearing a tank top and tight briefs, Swanhilda-Coppélia participates enthusiastically in a cabaret adagio act with him. She's enjoying being physically manipulated while manipulating his vainglorious pride in his own achievement. Maybe she's exploring another side of herself, unawakened by nice-but-dim Franz; or maybe hers is an assumed personality to put up on Instagram. Like social media, AI is all about illusion.
Coppélius becomes trapped in a nightmare alternative universe of his own making. He is mobbed by a unisex horde of Coppélia look-alikes, led by Swanhilda in righteous vengeance as a far-from-ideal human. The monstrous regiment of robots is multiplied over the walls of the set until, his mind addled, Coppélius is forever encased in his infernal machine. Franz emerges from his drugged stupor to dance a reconciliation duet with Swanhilda, restored to her journalist self. The salutation gesture that has reappeared throughout the ballet becomes the linking of their arms in the pas de deux, the couple in harmony as they recover from their bewildering experience. According to the programme synopsis, they ‘leave the virtual pleasures (?) of the Lab to face all the complications of the material world before them'. A lot to ask – how can we tell?
The ballet has more to say about the vain pursuit of artificial perfection than the 1870 libretto of Coppélia, the girl with enamel eyes. Doctor Coppélius becomes a contemporary eccentric, a Bond villain, a Steve Jobs, an Elon Musk. It's a great role for Maicciardhi, sleek in his black polo neck and well-fitting trousers, outlining his show-off arabesques. Devernay makes Swanhilda more complex than a feisty Lois Lane heroine: close-ups on film help show what she is thinking and feeling, while the choreography reveals her conflicts and her decisiveness. Barnes has the tricky task of making Franz, essentially a passive role like that of so many male leads in ballets, into a worthwhile mate for Swanhilda. A charismatic dancer (a remarkable Rudolf in Scottish Ballet's account of MacMillan's Mayerling), Barnes turns his pas de deux with Devernay into an evolving relationship.
Above all, Morgs' and Jess's Coppélia is a ballet, not a hybrid dance-theatre work. The choreography employs the language of classical ballet, albeit with contemporary twists: the performers use their classical training without being asked to resort to hip-hop gyrations or voguing robotics. Yes, there is a clear distinction between Swanhilda's expressive solos and Coppélia's not quite human movements, but it's not caricatured into distortions. Even the robots remain ballet dancers. Though the film projections are meant to be distracting, they don't obscure the live performances if you'd rather concentrate on the dancing. Elegantly designed and lit, the production is a palpable hit for Scottish Ballet, attracting sold-out houses in London as well as Scotland.
Picture Gallery: Scottish Ballet's Coppélia
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).