Rooted in tradition but a Coppélia of today

David Mead talks to Scottish Ballet artistic director Christopher Hampson about the company’s new production of Coppélia by Jess and Morgs, which premieres later this month at the Edinburgh International Festival.

“While there is a lot that is different, very much the beating heart of the story is the same,” says Christopher Hampson about Jess and Morgs’ (Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple) forthcoming new Coppélia. “At the end of the day, will a human still want a human to find love? Thankfully the answer is ‘yes’.” That’s what the original ballet is about, he believes. Will Franz and Swanhilda remain in love through the quest that they go through? That thread is definitely still there and people will recognise it as the Coppélia story, he says reassuringly.

The new production gives the story a dark twist, however. Hampson explains that the ballet is set in modern-day Silicon Valley where Dr Coppélius is a kind of tech guru whose latest creation is Coppélia, not a doll but an AI-programmed avatar. “A created human,” as Hampson describes it. The 21st-century Swanhilda is an investigative journalist, Franz her fiancé. “Dr Coppélius shows them how you can have your perfect ideal person: hair colour, eye colour, skin tone. I guess he’s saying you can have whatever your heart desires but, of course, the moral of the story is that you need a person inside there, not an avatar.”

Directors Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple
on the set of Scottish Ballet’s Coppélia
Photo Andy Ross

The ballet follows The Crucible, The Snow Queen and The Scandal at Mayerling as the fourth of Scottish Ballet’s Five in Five campaign, a five-year project to commission one new full-length work a year for five years, to mark the company’s 50th anniversary.

“With some of the commissions, I’ve been prescriptive, but with others I’ve wanted to hear where the creators were,” says Hampson. “That was the case with Jess and Morgs. I wanted to hear what thoughts they had and which stories they wanted to tell. They came back with the idea of Coppélia.”

Arthur Saint-Léon’s original ballet came out of a place of modernity, the 1860s, 1870s, a time when there was fascination with automata. It is a story that does rather lend itself to approaches through the ages, Hampson agrees. “It was playing on that trope of what’s real and what isn’t real. Can someone fall in love with an enamel doll? There was a kind of zeitgeist moment of people looking at this. Now I’ve seen our version, I can imagine a Coppélia for every decade, for every bit of industrial technology that comes our way.”

Grace Paulley in one of the filmed elements of Scottish Ballet’s Coppélia
Photo Andy Ross

Hampson explains that, although it is very much a live production with around 90% of it happening live in front of you, the new Coppélia does include substantial film by video designer Will Duke. “There are moments where we follow characters with a camera into bits of the set and we see things happening. We know they are happening live, we just can’t see them live, but we do see them on the screen. But there are also things that happen in that zone where they can’t be live because you know that what you are watching can’t happen live, but you’re led into it as a live event.”

It’s not difficult to start to draw parallels with the debate around fake news, and what is real and what is not, on social media. “It does make you question whether you really watching something live or something that has been manufactured? I think Coppélia has always lent itself to that. You have to work a bit harder in the traditional version to find it, but it this version it’s much easier to see.” It also surely cannot help but to provide a commentary on our anxieties surrounding new technology.

Rimbaud Patron (right) with Bruno Micchiardi and Scottish Ballet dancers
in rehearsal for Coppélia
Photo Andy Ross

Perhaps the most fascinating character in any Coppélia is Dr Coppélius. Why is he what he is? What is his background? Why does he do what he does? Hampson recalls seeing some amazing portrayals: “Peter Clegg at Northern Ballet; and in English National Ballet’s production there was Kevin Richmond, who was just hysterical, and Michael Coleman too.”

He explains that Jess and Morgs have made the Doctor into a real superstar tech wizard but with many idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. “There’s the sort of books he reads. He’s got a picture of himself meeting Obama in his office. He’s got a Lego spaceship that you know he painstakingly constructed himself. There are all these little clues to who he is. He’s obsessive, and he really believes he’s changing the world. There’s some text in the show, so we hear his voice, and Swanhilda’s too. In an interview, he puts an obsessive, obscure spin on every question that she asks him, and that makes him quite eccentric.”

The mark of a really good Dr Coppélius is that you feel sorry for him at the end, heartbroken even when everything is revealed to him, agrees Hampson, but whether audiences will feel that in the new production, he admits he doesn’t know yet. “We’ve yet to get to that bit in the tech. Jess and Morgs have got a few different versions of how it ends. I guess that will have to be a come see it and find out one!”

The international creative team also includes UK dramaturg Jeff James, set and lighting by Swedish designer, Bengt Gomér, and 1980s-inspired costuming from UK designer Annemarie Woods.

Javier Andreu (centre) and Scottish Ballet dancers in rehearsal for Coppélia
Photo Andy Ross

Léo Delibes’ original music has been reimagined by composers Mikael Karlsson (Sweden) and Michael P Atkinson (USA), the new score mixing traditional orchestra with synthesizers, processed samples and beats. “There’s quite a bit of new score in there with Delibes lovingly referenced and bounced off. It’s wonderful if you know the original score well.” When he first listened to an orchestral rehearsal, Hampson says he found himself in a sound world that was new, but would then suddenly latch onto something that was really familiar. “We do get the big mazurka theme coming through and plenty of other themes too. It’s incredible, stunning; a really fantastic score. It’s quite filmic, quite cinematic, bold. Very quirky. A bit like Jess and Morgs, actually.”

Coppélia will premiere on August 14, 2022 at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. Visit for details and tickets.

It will then tour Scotland in the autumn. Visit for dates, ticket links and more on the ballet.