Strange alchemy The history of Coppélia

The history of Coppélia

First published by The Australian Ballet | 2010

In 1870, Paris could feel its claim to be the dance capital of Europe slipping away. Ticket sales were declining and war seemed inevitable. During this same year, on the 25 May, Coppélia premiered at the Paris Opéra. It has since become widely regarded as the masterpiece of choreographer Arthur SaintLéon, while the music by Léo Delibes is held to be a precursor to later scores such as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Even on its opening night, Coppélia was hailed as an overwhelming success by its audience: celebrities, politicians, academics – and Napoleon Bonapart III. 

Napoleon arrived during the premiere’s second act, reportedly causing some spectators to cry out “Vive l’Empereur!” and others to demand silence once more. Napoleon would have settled down to watch just in time to see the results of Franz and Swanhilda’s intrusion into the workshop of Doctor Coppelius. Franz has fallen in love with the Doctor’s creation, the beautiful but lifeless Coppélia; Swanhilda has taken Coppélia’s place and convinced both men that the automaton has magically come to life; now her ruse has been exposed. The lovers escape and bumbling Doctor Coppelius is left surrounded by the chaos of his own dancing toys.

Was Napoleon reminded of another Bonapart’s own encounter with an automaton, sixty years earlier? His uncle, Napoleon the Great, famously played a game of chess against a machine known as ‘The Turk’: a turban-wearing robot, permanently fused to a cabinet and chessboard. It was such a sensation that not only was it taken on a world tour, but detectives were hired to prove that it must be some kind of trick. How could a machine play chess as well as a man – unless it was somehow thinking? Somehow human?

Coppélia has come to symbolise the end of romantic ballet; the end of an era in part defined by the rise of the ballerina. With lead roles now given to female dancers instead of male, some critics declared this to be proof of the emasculation of the artform. (Even Coppélia’s male lead, Franz, was played “en travestie” by the distinctly female Eugénie Fiocre on this opening night.) Romantic ballets were also defined by their enchanted forests, ethereal creatures, and other supernatural elements presented on stage. Ballerinas were often not playing humans at all, but sylphs, ghosts, witches, and wilis – and enslaving mortal men with their magical powers. 

Created in the wake of these romantic traditions, Coppélia illustrated a distinct shift from these enchanted worlds. Its magic isn’t the kind that belongs in a glade or a graveyard, but in a cluttered workshop. The strange alchemy that Doctor Coppelius wields to animate his living dolls is an example of new anxieties, slowly boiling up over decades previous, brought on by the rush of modernity. After all, Coppélia’s comedy has a strangely grim inspiration: the gothic horror story The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffman. In his story, Doctor Coppelius is not a bumbling inventor; he’s a repulsive monster, terrifying children with his alchemical experiments. “…the most hideous form,” says the narrator, “could not have inspired me with deeper horror than this very Coppelius.” 

Not all alchemy was so disquieting. One could walk from the Paris Opéra House to the Boulevard du Temple and visit the phantasmagorical theatre of illusionist Henri Robin. Here, ‘science shows’ would exhibit new technology alongside more familiar illusions of the supernatural. Similar magical spectacles could be found on the ballet stage, too. The supernatural stories made famous in romantic ballet needed new technological ‘special effects’ to be effectively told. As the writer Robert A. Heinlein once wrote: “One man’s magic is another man’s engineering problem”. Ballet proves him correct – not only in Doctor Coppelius’ colourful pyrotechnics, but in something as seemingly simple as the kind of lighting used in the theatre. 

Ballet was once performed while lit entirely by candles; now new kinds of lighting allowed for the stage to be illuminated while the audience was left in darkness. (In fact, some spectators complained about suddenly being forced to sit in the gloom as they watched.) The gas lighting used for La Sylphide at the Paris Opéra, premiering in 1832, allowed for the stage to be dimmed, and this let the designers create theatrical spaces of previously unknown depth and subtlety. It’s telling that many critics later found the illusions presented in the Paris Opéra’s Giselle – first performed in 1841 – so compelling they described it as if it were a real place on stage, rather than the sum of clever artifice.

Changing costumes, too, were far more than just decoration. Pointe shoes transformed from simple non-heeled shoes secured by ribbons to leather-soled shoes with darned toes, and the dancing done while wearing them shifted as well. An increasing use of pointe work required ballerinas to have more support from their partners, as their balance could be more precarious; this created the sense of more choreographic intimacy. ‘Flying machines’ had allowed ballerinas suspended from wires the illusion of flight throughout the 19th Century, but pointe shoes allowed dancers to seem to hover weightlessly above the stage under their own power. When wires were employed to lift Carlotta Grisi, the original Giselle, pointe work also allowed her to ‘take off’ more convincingly.

Like these illusions of flight, other magic tricks familiar to ballet audiences became associated with supernatural powers. The long white dresses used in La Sylphide became almost a kind of uniform of the supernatural, thanks to the way they glowed in the gas lighting and kept moving, mysteriously, once the dancer was still. Even trapdoors were associated with the supernatural. While in La Sylphide, a trapdoor allowed a ballerina to disappear into a chimney, they were often used to suck evil characters down to face whatever eternal punishment was awaiting them below. This was common enough that the area below the stage became known by its theological label: ‘hell’.

Coppélia draws a distinction between Coppelius’ alchemy and ‘real’ magic. He can make his automatons dance, but he fails in his attempt to extract Franz’ lifeforce and transplant it into his favourite automaton. The uncanny figure of Coppélia herself remains a frivolity – because Coppelius couldn’t really bring her to life. Swanhilda only pretended it was so. Later, The Nutcracker would also animate its dolls, turning a surprisingly dark Hoffman tale into a beloved, light-as-air Christmas ballet; it’s made clear, though, that the magic animating the toy soldier is just a child’s dream.

The existence of a lifelike automaton in Hoffman’s original tale is not a charming curiosity. After the truth of her creation is revealed, Hoffman describes lovers forcing one another to sing and dance off-key and out of time, just to prove they are human. Otherwise how can they be sure? And just like The Nutcracker’s dreaming, the final fate of The Turk offers its own comfort. The chess-playing automaton was eventually proven to be a hoax. Its unsettling ‘artificial intelligence’ was only a man with a duplicate chessboard tucked in the cabinet, working the machine from the inside. It was largely forgotten, and finally destroyed in a fire in 1854.

In The Sandman, the sweet Clara suggests the cure for the memories of Coppelius’ terrible experiments: “If the ugly Coppelius takes it into his head to annoy you in your dreams, I’ll scare him away with loud peals of laughter.” And this is precisely what SaintLéon’s Coppélia does. Coppélia’s production would soon be halted by war and the Paris Opéra temporarily closed; in 1873, the same gas lighting that helped create such palpable illusions would cause a fire that raged for a full day and night, destroying the theatre. On opening night, however, the audience laughed away questions of the dangerous powers that new technology brings, or what it could mean to give animation to something inanimate. They watched, laughing, as Doctor Coppelius got his comeuppance, and Franz and Swanhilda were happily (and inevitably) married before the ballet’s end.

In the outer suburbs of Paris, years before this premiere, magician Jean Eugène RobertHoudin built his own automaton. It was capable only of signing a perfect facsimile of its creator’s name when asked the following question: “Who gave you life?” Coppélia answers that question with the names of its composers, choreographers, designers, dancers, and other magicians – both onstage and off.