Are girlfriends electric? Dare to dance with this darkly thrilling Coppélia

·3-min read
Constance Devernay as Swanhilda and Bruno Micchiardi as Doctor Coppélius - Robbie Jack/ Corbis via Getty Images
Constance Devernay as Swanhilda and Bruno Micchiardi as Doctor Coppélius - Robbie Jack/ Corbis via Getty Images

Well, if you’re going to reinvent a classic, don’t hold back. And certainly no one could accuse Scottish Ballet of half-heartedness with its dark new digital-age take on the lighthearted 1870 favourite Coppélia, as of-the-minute and as burnished as a box-fresh iPhone.

We are a long way from innocent tomfoolery in and around the village square. Dr Coppélius is no longer a daffy old dollmaker but Silicon Valley’s hottest new entrepreneur; Swanhilda is now a journalist sent to interview him. (A journalist in a ballet? About time too.) And, although Franz is, as traditionally, her fiancé, the new object of his affections – Coppélia – is not a mannequin in a window, but Dr Coppélius’s revolutionary new piece of artificial intelligence.

The always sinister, Pygmalion-ish concept of men first inventing and then desiring fake women inevitably evokes Stepford. But director-choreographers Morgann Runacre-Temple and Jessica Wright’s piece (dramaturgy by Jeff James) feels in many ways more like Alex Garland’s 2014 chiller Ex Machina writ large, while the climax is, in the best way, pure Black Mirror.

As for the score, recognisable snippets of Delibes’s marvellous music remain, but more often than not they serve as building blocks for an entirely new, richly cinematic, orchestral-electronic creation that ranges in style from souped-up John Adams to full-on electro house. (In a neat touch, the famous rum-ti-tum-tum mazurka does appear intact, but it turns out to be what Dr Coppélius is listening to on his earphones.)

Meanwhile, and often head-spinningly, projections (by Will Duke) are everywhere. Much of Dr Coppélius and Swanhilda’s interactions are filmed and beamed onto the rear of Bengt Gomér’s clever set, creating an often bracing interplay between the “live action” and the lightshow. What’s more, when Coppélia herself is introduced, and not for the first time here, you genuinely can’t tell to what extent you’re watching digital wizardry or a real dancer – it’s as if we're all turned into gawping, bewitched Franzes.

Scottish Ballet performs at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre - Robbie Jack/ Corbis via Getty Images
Scottish Ballet performs at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre - Robbie Jack/ Corbis via Getty Images

The steps only heighten this effect. If the solos and duets tend to be punchily efficient rather than downright arresting, the interview gets off to a clever, almost dance-theatrical start, and there are some real choreographic surprises in store in the larger ensembles. Take the clutch of dancers coalescing into a single, multi-limbed android, like some sort of 21st-century version of a Hindu god.

The dancers look genuinely thrilled to be involved in all this, as well they might. Constance Devernay-Laurence is a plucky Swanhilda, never better than when convincing Coppélius that she’s Coppélia made flesh – so steely-precise, so lightning-fast are her turns here that I fleetingly (and unfairly) wondered if she was getting computer-generated “help”.

Bruno Micchiardi brings technical assurance and just the right smug, Neronian swagger to Coppélius, with Simon Schilgen good too as the bewitched Franz. The corps, meanwhile, repeatedly nail Runacre-Temple and Wright’s necessarily robotic slant on classicism, and, towards the close, fuse with Duke’s projections to evoke a nightmarish, neo-Fordist vision of carbon-copy automata in unison.

This Coppélia, then, not only should delight die-hard ballet-goers in search of a novel thrill-ride, but might also convince young newcomers to spurn their smartphones for an evening – aptly so, for a piece that’s ultimately a celebration of real life over circuitry. Clever Scottish Ballet.

At Edinburgh today and (tomorrow) matinee and eve, then touring Scotland until October. Tickets: scottishballet.co.uk