Ballet has found a way to combat the lure of sentient robots. In three years, two companies have reinvented Coppelia, an 1870 comedy inspired by automated dolls, for this purpose. According to Jean-Christophe Maillot Coppel-iA for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, it’s Scottish Ballet’s turn to dive into artificial intelligence, with a world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival (at the Festival Theatre) orchestrated by Morgann Runacre-Temple and Jessica Wright, alias Jess and Morgs.
There are similarities between these two new Coppelias, starting with sterile all-white ensembles and the notion that humanoids are the next frontier for mad inventors. In keeping with the theme, however, Scottish Ballet’s version is technologically more ambitious than Maillot’s. Jess and Morgs specialize in dance films, and they weaved pre-recorded scenes and live footage into the show, projected onto the sets.
Dr. Coppélius, once a lonely doll maker, is recast here as a baby-faced tech guru in a turtleneck, founder and CEO of a company called NuLife. He receives a visit from the journalist Swanhilda, who questions him about his ethical negligence. Both of their conversations take place in voiceover as the dancers try, and don’t quite succeed, to play them believable. Soon, Swanhilda finds herself wandering the halls of NuLife, encountering the company’s many laboratory creatures, and at one point transforming into one. (How? Don’t ask.)
Is it a real augmented ballet? Yes and no. The action is clear and fast, aided by Mikael Karlsson and Michael P Atkinson’s propulsive mix of orchestral and electronic music, which features witty nods to Léo Delibes’ scintillating 1870 score. Live filming tricks are already overused in contemporary theatre, but they’re relatively new to ballet, and cameraman Rimbaud Patron followed the fluid but somewhat repetitive choreography seamlessly.
It’s the lo-fi drama that’s tripping this up Coppelia. In the 19th century libretto, Swanhilda had a fiancé, Franz, who became obsessed with a doll. Jess and Morgs have dreamed up an unlikely story to keep him around: 21st-century Franz shows up with his journalist girlfriend at his work event, holding her hand throughout. The two open and close the ballet, but their relationship has no context or substance.
Constance Devernay-Laurence, a dancer with a penetrating dramatic intelligence, has more to say like Swanhilda facing Dr. Coppélius. As the founder of NuLife, Bruno Micchiardi leans into evil comedy at times, in ways the production could have gone deeper into.
His creatures are saddled with plastic diapers and matching crop-tops, but the scenes in which they come to life are choreographically the most inventive, with eerily distorted classical steps for Scottish Ballet’s fiercely committed dancers. . Despite its inconsistencies, this Coppelia is an ambitious effort by the company – and shows that ballet is perfectly capable of theatrical experimentation in the 21st century.
August 16, then tour in Scotland in September/October, scottishballet.co.uk