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Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo Gives an Age-Old Tale a High-Tech Makeover

The Monégasque company brings a new, AI-inspired version of “Coppélia” to Orange County.


Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo is the official national company of the Principality of Monaco. Its "Coppel.i.A." is based on the ballet "Coppelia" that was made in 1870. Photo courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts/Les Ballets de Monte Carlo
 

Segerstrom Center for the Arts welcomes back Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo this week for a four-day run of the company’s newest full-length ballet “Coppel.i.A.” The work exemplifies choreographer and director Jean-Christophe Maillot’s penchant for revising classical ballets. 


Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo is the official company of the Principality of Monaco, which was established in 1985 by the Princess of Hanover following the desires of her mother, Princess Grace. Princess Grace wished to perpetuate the long tradition of dance in Monaco, which started when Serge Diaghilev made Monte Carlo the creative home for his famous Ballets Russes, a company that forever changed the course of ballet by making it widely popular, diversified and more expressive.


Ballet’s Narrative History

Ballet has been telling dramatic stories since the 1800s. Many of those stories are still performed on stage with the same music and structure as the originals, making no updates to the narrative’s time or place to resemble the 21st century. 


But Maillot is doing just that in his newest creation, “Coppél.i.A.,” which comes to Segerstrom Center for the Arts March 7-10. The ballet is based on the famous romantic piece “Coppélia,” also called “The Girl with Enamel Eyes,” in which a mechanical doll appears so lifelike that a village boy falls in love with her and shuns his current fiancée.


In Maillot’s version, the bones of the story stay the same, but the method of spontaneous animation is artificial intelligence. 


"The idea of creating a ballet around ‘Coppélia’ arose in 2016, but my thoughts were drawn to ‘The Girl with Enamel Eyes’ long before then,” Maillot said in a news release. 


“In fact, these thoughts were rather ambivalent since, although I was truly fascinated by the story of a young man falling in love with a mechanical doll, I was somewhat put off by the romanticism of the original ballet. Then, I had the idea of revising the score to make it possible for me to revisit this classic work in the ballet repertoire by updating the narrative: a story of two fiancés whose love would be challenged by the appearance of artificial intelligence.”



Jennifer Fisher, a dance historian and professor at UC Irvine, explained that story ballets have a history of focusing on creatures that people have no control over, things that challenge human existence.


“The early story ballets were developed in the Christian culture, so they were about creatures with some sort of power or energy that threatened the status quo of human beings and they were always something outside of the church,” Fisher said.


Take, for example, the Wilis in “Giselle” which are defined as female vampires, or the sylph in “Le Sylphide,” which is playful but still an imaginary spirit that lures a young man away from his bride.


Fisher noted that when the ballet “Coppélia” premiered in 1870, it was not long after the Industrial Revolution. The story reflected an underlying anxiety of the times which was a fear that machines could do the work of skilled craftsmen, threatening people’s livelihoods. 


“(The story of) ‘Coppélia’ would have set some hearts at ease,” Fisher said. “In the end, it’s anxiety-free, everything makes sense again.”


Since the ballets of the time were meant to entertain, not existentially frighten, “Coppélia’s” plot is eventually resolved when the doll is revealed to be just a doll. Not some creature that could replace the fiancée or feel real love. That’s just for humans. Don’t worry, machines can’t replace you. 


Or can they?


Photos from "Coppel.i.A.," choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot who has been with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo as artistic director since 1993. It tells the story of two young lovers, Frantz and Swanhilda, who have their lives upended by an artificial being – shaking their foundations and challenging what they thought they knew of love. Photo courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts/Les Ballets de Monte Carlo


The Reality of Artificial Intelligence

UC Irvine computer science professor Pierre Baldi said in many ways the boundaries between man and machine are getting blurry and that those of us who don’t study AI should become more aware and more cautious of the implications of this technology.


“AI is not new, but it is currently exploding and is suddenly very powerful,” Baldi said. “It is going to impact every aspect of our lives and society. It is coming like a tsunami and it’s very exciting and very scary. I do not think lay people are scared enough.”


For thousands of years, the idea of an "intelligent machine" has fascinated humanity. Machines have been envisioned as tireless assistants, ultimate soldiers and compassionate companions. In the future, Baldi surmises we may all have a little AI doctor to give us advice. 


“There are plenty of benefits to AI. It can take on lots of tasks that are boring or tedious, but there are two sides to every coin and it is a very big coin,” Baldi said.


“We have so many deep fakes. Fake voices, fake images. And at the scientific level, it’s already a problem because each time we develop a system to detect them such as watermarks, etc., the AI evolves. It is a race.”


When Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo transports audiences into what the company describes as the “near future,” it aims to offer an exploration of what it means to search for the ideal partner in an age of technological innovation. 


Modern themes such as AI are not often presented in ballet, which has a notoriously conservative, traditional fan base. But dance can be a compelling medium for narrative, and as Fisher said, all dance reflects the culture in which it develops.


“AI is certainly on people’s minds and dance should be able to comment on it,” Fisher said. “It is an uphill climb, but a noble idea to try and update a ballet with technology. Can (the ballet) add something to help us understand AI more? Can it embody the technology in such a way as to make us think about AI in a certain way?”


With an original score and arrangement by Bertrand Maillot after 19th-century composer Léo Delibes, and strikingly untraditional costumes, it will be interesting to see how Maillot propels the 154-year-old ballet into the age of AI

Coppél.i.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. March 7-9, 2 p.m. March 9, 1 p.m. March 10

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Starting at $39

Contact: 714-556-2787 or scfta.org


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