Although ballet has been continually modernised since the age of Diaghilev, traditional productions of certain classical ballets originating in nineteenth-century France or Russia have maintained an enduring resilience to change. Right now, in many countries, a tipping point is being reached: outdated racial stereotypes in ballets such as The Nutcracker and La Bayadére are being stripped away and narratives updated to make ballet more accessible to new and younger audiences.

Bruno Micchiardi as Dr Coppélius in Jess and Morgs' Coppélia
© Andy Ross

Under the leadership of Christopher Hampson, Scottish Ballet is in the vanguard of this modernising movement, not least in its integration of film and dance, which has found its sweet spot in the work of Jess and Morgs (the collective brand name for the creative partnership of Morgann Runacre-Temple and Jessica Wright). Their production of Coppélia establishes a new benchmark in the arrangement of ballet within a multi-media environment. The integration of an onstage camera shooting live action film, projected in real time onto a screen above the stage, is not new, but Jess and Morgs are perfecting the art of adding this extra dimension to live performance.

This is Coppélia but not as we know it. The traditional narrative of a mechanical doll made so lifelike by its inventor (Dr Coppélius) that a young man (Franz) becomes besotted with her, much to the irritation of his fiancée (Swanhilda) is still recognisable in this new story transported from an 18th century Polish village to Silicon Valley in the 21st century. In place of the reclusive original, this Dr Coppélius is the founder and CEO of NuLife, a hot new tech giant at the forefront of developing Artificial Intelligence (AI); Swanhilda is a visiting journalist who, unaccountably, has brought her fiancé (Franz) along for the interview! In place of the immobile doll seated at the window, Coppélia is a technology that creates 3D printed androids and the dim-witted Franz forms the same obsession with her image as his Polish antecedent. Also unaccountably, Swanhilda and Franz stay the night at NuLife, occupying a bedroom monitored by cameras! The intrepid investigative journalist sets off in her satin PJs and stumbles upon the laboratories, escaping from an incongruous party to become the latest version of Coppélia and turn the tables on the hapless inventor! 

Bruno Micchiardi and Constance Deverney-Laurence in Jess and Morgs' Coppélia
© Andy Ross

Performances were excellent across the cast. As Swanhilda, Constance Devernay-Laurence showed all the effervescent eagerness of the investigative journo, her expressiveness enriched by the intimate scrutiny of the camera close-ups. Bruno Micchiardi was equally outstanding as Dr Coppélius (the model spacecraft in his office possibly a giveaway to the character’s real-life inspiration), a mesmeric, Svengali-like figure; idealistic, charismatic and smug! His self-promotional obsession explained the permanence of cameras capturing him continually, even when exercising. Jerome Anthony Barnes did his best in the anonymous role of Franz but neither his obsessive attraction to Coppélia or his reason for being there in the first place were ever adequately explained.

Scottish Ballet with Constance Devernay-Laurence as Swanhilda in Jess and Morgs' Coppélia
© Andy Ross

The merest hints of Léo Delibes’ original music infiltrate a new score by Mikael Karlsson and Michael P. Atkinson, which is highly descriptive in a filmic way especially in all the many scènes d’action. The music is especially outstanding in a couple of choreographic highlights: a romantic, final duet for Swanhilda and Franz and a topical spoof of a closely coordinated “tik-tok” dance in V-formation for Coppélius and his acolytes. The problem in a production that is dominated by design aesthetics, as is most assuredly the case here, is that the choreography tends to get lost in the overall direction. Annemarie Woods has created some memorable costumes especially in the hard-plastic look of the two-piece uniform for the corps of Coppélias (not to mention those satin pyjamas)! 

Scottish Ballet in Jess and Morgs' Coppélia
© Andy Ross

While this is a substantial and clever new interpretation of a classic ballet, I stop short of describing it as innovative. Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Coppél-i-A (2019) for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo also presented Coppélia as an AI android in a ballet set to a new score. As far back as 2011, Izadora Weiss used an onstage camera for real-time overhead projections in her The Rite of Spring. The clever interaction of a human form with its digital twin has been used many times (think of Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek’s Bye, Jasmin Vardimon’s Alice and Loop by Aracaladanza as examples) and the blonde hair and plasticised costume of Coppélia was reminiscent of several futuristic images, from Hazel O’Connor in Breaking Glass to Mila Jovovich’s outfit in The Fifth Element

Constance Devernay-Laurence and Bethany Kingsley-Garner in Jess and Morgs' Coppélia
© Andy Ross

Nonetheless, this Coppélia benefits from slick directorial interaction of all these elements, presented with excellent designs and interactive projections, underpinned by a descriptive new score and delivered through a slew of fine performances. It was welcomed by significant critical and popular success at its world premiere in last year’s Edinburgh Festival and judging by the rapturous reception here at Sadler’s Wells, Scottish Ballet and Jess and Morgs have an enduring hit on their hands.