An electrifying production, Scottish Ballet’s Coppélia, reimagined with robots and a new story that only nods to the original, is not just for sci-fi fans but addresses the serious questions of our time: our relationship with technology, truth vs. reality (which might be a nod to the corrupting effects of social media) and, most importantly, the ethical implications of creating artificial humans. The essential question of the original Coppélia remains: what happens if someone falls in love with a nonhuman or half human creation, i.e. with a false reality?
An astounding mix of media
An astounding mix of media, this show is choreographed by Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple (Jess and Morgs) with all new moves (not the famous Petipa’s). It combines film that has been previously recorded and is live projected on a screen above, spoken text written by Jeff James, and music composed by Mikael Karlsson and Michael P Atkinson. Although there are jumping off points from the original Delibes’ score, it's completely innovative with a mix of live orchestra and electronic soundscapes.
Film and live dance interact and it is fascinating to see how what appears on stage looks different on screen. The roving cameraman, Rimbaud Patron, also a dancer, interacts his moves with those of the other dancers. At times it is unclear what is pre-recorded and what is live, and there is some fun when the virtual reality of another screen descends to the stage and live dancers appear to jump in and out of it.
Swanhilda, superbly danced by Constance Devernay, is a curious journalist with the padded shoulders of an '80s power suit who wants to penetrate the secrets of 'NuLife', Dr Coppélius’ laboratory. We enter a vast, empty set of a grey and white world; technicians in white coats, pastel-coloured staff who work all hours then party together, their life consumed by their workplace. It is a brilliant portrayal of IT life, hinting at Silicon/Uncanny Valley. They slavishly worship their CEO, Dr Coppélius, who is distinctly uncanny, danced by a fiendish, narcissistic and mesmerising Bruno Micchiardi. He is dressed all in black with a polo neck, reminiscent of the late Steve Jobs. Micciardi’s hands creeping over his desk are particularly sinister as Swanhilda/Devernay interviews him. But it’s not all sinister, there is also a humorous vignette of his body-building sessions.
As Swanhilda explores the laboratory at night, she discovers an array of robotic body parts: torsos, heads and, most disturbingly, a tray with a row of fingers are laid out - Sami Fendall, the Art Director’s, brilliant inventions. Robots in striking costumes of white plastic body parts, designed by Annemarie Woods, perform spell-binding dance throughout. The most memorable is when they are standing one behind the other, manipulating long artificial arms where the impression is of a car factory assembly line.
The choreography is cleverly varied; an opening pas de deux between Swanhilda and her boyfriend Franz (Simon Schilgen) suggests a normal human relationship, but gradually a spiky aggressiveness appears in Swanhilda’s challenging interview with the doctor as it becomes clear he accepts no responsibility for his creations. The weird beats of the party scene are danced with '80s style moves, but as the relationship between Swanhilda and the doctor develops the music darkens, and the choreography of their duets becomes startling with unusual extensions and turns reminiscent of Wayne McGregor (whose company Wright danced with for 11 years).
The show steadily becomes more exciting and dark as Swanhilda enters the body of the robot and seduces the doctor. The millions of robot clones multiplying on screen and spilling out into the stage’s walls is a stunning climax to the show, as is the dramatic coup; Swanhilda leaving the doctor inside the onstage screen suspended in a virtual reality for ever. Brilliant! I wish the ballet had ended there but, of course, we had to see Franz and Swanhilda reunited in their normal human relationship. Oh well.