Coppélia, playing through Sunday at Pacific Northwest Ballet, has a “kid-friendly” reputation in ballet circles.

One reason is because the ballet has actual kids on stage. There’s a waltz that calls for 24 children, each representing an hour of the day. This lends credibility to parents who tell their children that if they keep practicing, they, too, can become ballet dancers. Another reason for Coppélia’s popularity is that teaching kids how to imitate a mechanical doll is a perfect early lesson for a children’s dance instructor.

As for the story of Coppélia, it shares with other children’s fairy tales the defining characteristic of being profoundly disturbing for adults.

Coppélia is loosely based on “The Sandman,” an E.T.A. Hoffmann short story.

In case you’re not familiar with E.T.A. Hoffmann: He was born in 1776 in the Prussian capital of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), where he studied music. While working for a theater in the Bavarian town of Bamberg in 1808, the 32-year-old Hoffmann took on a 12-year-old voice student, Julia Marc, and in the ensuing years, he became infatuated with her beauty and talent. On her 15th birthday, Hoffmann wrote a poem for Julia comparing her to a blossoming rose, and her mother found it all highly inappropriate. At the age of 16, little Julchen was engaged and married to a banker. The newlyweds moved away to Hamburg, leaving Hoffmann in his bitterness and disappointment to write satires of high society types with philistine tastes. He also took up the Romantic cause of poets and musicians who by virtue of their intrinsic artistic nature should be elevated above the rest of humanity. He had intended to become a composer, but found more success as a writer. In 1814, he published his first collections of short stories and moved to Berlin. In 1822, at the age of 46, the hard-drinking Hoffmann died of syphilis.

In “The Sandman” (1816), the young man Nathanael believes that he is being stalked by Coppelius, an evil, eyeball-stealing alchemist whose nefarious science experiments killed Nathanael’s father years earlier. Clara, Nathanael’s betrothed, attempts to soothe him by saying that it’s all in his head. This commonsense advice annoys Nathanael, but he succumbs to her logic. Still, when he looks in her eyes, he sees death. He writes “hideous” poems to “animate Clara’s cold temperament,” but she responds only with horror. Clara’s response angers Nathanael:

Nathanael sprang up indignantly and exclaimed, thrusting Clara away: ‘You accursed lifeless automaton!’ [1]

For Nathanael, the Turing test is whether or not you like his poetry.

He subsequently falls in love with Olimpia, the beautiful daughter of the physics professor Spalanzani. The strangely repetitive Olimpia has a conversational repertoire consisting entirely of: “Oh! oh!” and “Good night, my dear friend.” When a friend tries to talk him out of his affections, Nathanael replies:

‘Olimpia may well inspire a weird feeling in cold, prosaic people like you. It is only to the poetic soul that a similarly organized soul reveals itself! I was the only one to arouse her loving gaze, which radiated through my heart and mind; only in Olimpia’s love do I recognize myself. People like you may complain because she doesn’t engage in trivial chit-chat, like other banal minds. She utters few words, certainly; but these few words are true hieroglyphs, disclosing an inner world filled with love and lofty awareness of the spiritual life led in in contemplation of the everlasting Beyond. But you can’t appreciate any of this, and I’m wasting my words’ [2].

Spoiler alert: Olimpia is an automaton, created by Spalanzani and Coppelius working together. When Nathanael finds out, he goes mad. Then, once he leaves the madhouse, he inherits some money and takes up again with Clara as his bride-to-be. Together, they climb to the top of the lofty tower of the town hall, at which point Nathanael reverts to insanity and attempts to throw Clara to her death. Clara’s brother rescues her and the babbling Nathanael commits suicide. The end.

The ballet Coppélia, drawing on Charles Nuitter’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story, takes things in a different direction.

Franz, a village boy betrothed to Swanilda, is entranced by Coppélia, a beautiful apparition he sees reading a book on Dr. Coppelius’s balcony. The competition causes Swanilda much dismay, and so she and her friends find her way into Dr. Coppelius’s house. There, Swanilda discovers that Coppélia is an automaton. The doctor returns. Swanilda hides behind the curtain with the doll. Meanwhile, Franz breaks into Dr. Coppelius’s house to meet this mysterious Coppélia. He’s caught. The doctor sits him down and gives him a drugged glass of wine. The doctor intends to transfer the life force from Franz into Coppélia, but Coppélia is no more, as Swanilda has stripped bare and disassembled the doll. She steals Coppélia’s clothes and plays an imitation game: She moves like an automaton, she pretends to learn like an automaton, and she convinces Dr. Coppelius that she is absorbing Franz’s life force. This bravura performance buys Swanilda the time to free Franz from his drug-induced sleep so that the two can marry and exchange their life forces in the old-fashioned way.

Swanilda passes the reverse Turing test: More robot than robot.

Swanilda’s performance dispels two illusions at once: First, Franz’s illusion that there existed a girl like Coppélia of pure transcendent beauty; and second, Dr. Copellius’s illusion that book smarts and education can create an artificial being that might possibly equal the spirit of a real, flesh-and-blood person.

And, by dressing up as a doll, Swanilda teaches the two doll-fanciers in her life that dolls aren’t real. She also makes it clear to Franz that she’s GGG [3].

That brings us to Act III, which leaves behind the exigencies of plot to depict village life as it ought to be, a “Waltz of the Hours” laying out through dance the symbolic order of existence: Dawn, Prayer, Work, Hymen, Discord, War, and Peace.

Yes, you read that correctly: “Hymen,” a torch-bearing dancer accompanied by Cupid to symbolize marriage. In the Balanchine version as performed by PNB, “Hymen” has been replaced by four “Jesterettes.” Easier to explain that to the kiddies.

This idealization of village life makes me stop to reconsider what we’ve been led to believe about the character of Dr. Coppelius. Here’s an older guy who likes to stay home building lifelike puppets. He collects mannequin parts, builds robots, and maintains an extensive library of exquisite hardcover books. Where’s the harm?

We see some questionable moral choices by the protagonists:

  • When the old man limps with his cane through the village square, Franz and his friends take sport in roughing him up.
  • Swanilda and the village girls violate Dr. Coppelius’s space to appropriate and misuse his personal property.
  • Swanilda breaks apart her artificial rival like a Luddite lacemaker.
  • Franz breaks into a private home for a tête-à-tête with Coppélia, and who’s to say what his intentions were.

Granted, it was completely wrong of Dr. Coppelius to render Franz unconscious in order to attempt an animus transplant into the lifeless Coppélia. But it’s not like he plucked out Franz’s eyeballs, which is totally something that Hoffmann’s Sandman would have done given the chance.

This partial defense of Dr. Coppelius is merely to observe that there’s an anti-intellectual, anti-science undercurrent to this delightful ballet. There’s this old man in a fancy house right in the village square, and he’s sequestered up the tower with all his incomprehensible books, he’s not one of us, and he’s building strange scientific devices that are dangerous because they’re capturing the imagination and attention of our impressionable youth. That can’t be right. That weird stuff doesn’t have a place in the natural order of the Waltz of the Hours. Yet in the end, Dr. Coppelius gets paid off by the burgomaster to make more Coppéliators. Swanilda saved her Franz, but progress continues.

A contemporary echo: Even as the chatbots of the world learn how to participate in social intercourse, we’re likely to see the commercialization of lifelike robots for more intimate kinds of interpersonal relationships, catering to desires ranging from the commonplace to those more far out on the “long tail.” We all may need to learn to dance like robots.

[1]  E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Golden Pot and Other Tales, trans. Ritchie Robertson (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), 103.

[2] Hoffmann, 111-112.