Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
August 15, 2022
In a way, technology is central to even traditional stagings of Coppélia. It just happens to be 19th-century style. Most efforts at telling the story in a new way simply relocate the story to a different time or place, but keep everything else pretty much the same. In their new production for Scottish Ballet, Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple (aka Jess and Morgs) take a huge leap further, dragging the dusty old ballet into the modern day and the world of artificial intelligence (AI).
The skeleton of the story remains, if not the flesh. Instead of the usual pretty village square, the story all takes place at NuLife, a place of sterile white walls, white doors and where lots of people in white coats are busy ‘reinventing humanity’ as the slogan on an electronic display tells us. Head of NuLife is Dr Coppélius, a tech-guru in a very contrasting all black outfit, albeit one that seems to belong more in a 1980s television series.
Jess and Morgs have made something of a name for themselves in dance film. Here, cameraman Rimbaud Patron frequently follows the action, sometimes following the dancers offstage, allowing us to see what would otherwise be hidden. The live footage is beamed onto a screen for us all to see. None of that is a new idea, even in ballet, but it is effectively done, most so when the whole back wall is used as a screen. Very rarely does it cause any questioning of what is real as is claimed, though.
Swanhilda (Constance Devernay-Laurence), is a cool journalist visiting NuLife to question Dr Coppélius (Bruno Micchiardi) about his latest project and his ethics. The latter is dealt with during an interview that we hear in voiceover, the pair dancing out the words, albeit not entirely effectively.
For reasons unexplained, Swanhilda has boyfriend Franz in tow on her assignment, the couple getting to stay the night. Unable to sleep, she goes walkabout through NuLife’s corridors and labs (for a hi-tech establishment, security is remarkably lax). It’s not long before she runs across the sort of android Coppélias being manufactured, eventually turning into one.
These Coppélias are strange creatures. Dressed in what appears to be moulded, armoured breastplates and briefs, they look like futuristic Amazons, the sort of thing you might see in a video game. It is quite effective, although quite how they get from physical android to AI video being defeated me. There’s a particularly neat dance for some of them that makes great use of waiting to be bolted on arms.
Even in ‘regular’ productions of the ballet, Dr Coppélius is the most interesting character, certainly the one with greatest depth. Micchiardi is a powerful presence. There’s a sense that he’s more than the archetypal evil genius. We see a man very much the man in control and who likes being in control, although not without his weaknesses. It’s a shame his character is not explored more deeply.
Missing almost completely is any sense of relationship between Swanhilda and Franz (Simon Schilgen). They do get duets to open and close the ballet, but neither actually tells us anything about them. This Franz is as grey as the suit he wears. For all that he contributes to the narrative, he might as well not be there. Romantic interest there is not.
Neatly constructed if a little repetitive, the ensemble dances do little to push the story along. Quite why there is a party scene for the workers is particularly unclear. Attempts to slot in humour brought a few titters from the audience but feel out of place.
But this Coppélia does have a lot going for it. Annemarie Woods’ designs are excellent, and Mikael Karlsson and Michael P Atkinson’s essential new orchestral and electronic score makes plenty of references to Léo Delibes’ original, nods that sometimes come as a surprise. What problems there are almost all come with narrative, which sometimes not as strong or in-depth as it could be.
Jess and Morgs’ Coppélia takes a big step away from the usual versions. It’s certainly different and it’s certainly relevant, and for that much credit is due. It does make connections with modern science. It does ask questions of modern society and artificial intelligence technology, and where the latter might be taking us; or, a Dr Coppélius suggests, we are taking it. But, as good as it is, I can’t help feeling that trying to retain and make connections with the original actually weakens the ballet. It left me wishing it had gone just that bit further, been braver, been darker, been deeper.
Coppélia is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh to August 16, 2022. Visit www.eif.co.uk for tickets.