Robot ballerinas

13 March 2012 | By Hila Shachar

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman at work on The Coppélia Project
Geoffrey Drake-Brockman at work on The Coppélia Project
Pop-up ballerina ... life-size
Pop-up ballerina ... life-size
Robot ballerina in the making
Robot ballerina in the making
Real-life ballerina Jayne Cooper-Smeulders mid-plaster cast
Real-life ballerina Jayne Cooper-Smeulders mid-plaster cast

Newsflash! You can now help Geoffrey complete the robot ballerinas! He’s crowd-sourcing the completion of the Coppélia Project. More details here.

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman’s The Coppélia Project is a modern artistic exploration of the 1868 ballet Coppélia by Delibes. Drake-Brockman is a Perth-based artist who specialises in robotics, lasers and optical interactive installations. He has been exhibiting his work since 1986, with numerous shows in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Singapore, New York and London. An important aspect of his work is his investigation of the relationship between technology and humanity. The Coppélia Project is perhaps one of the most fascinating examinations of this theme.

The project not only reworks the well-known Coppélia ballet, but also draws on clockwork music boxes – the kind with a pop-up ballerina who rotates in front of a mirror when the lid is opened. For anyone who’s ever owned a pop-up ballerina jewellery box, it’s hard not approach this project with a child-like enthusiasm, as the idea of a life-size version seems too alluring for words.

The Coppélia Project began in 2006 as a collaboration with The West Australian Ballet’s Executive Administrator, Jennifer Piper, then-Associate Artistic Director Catherine Goss, and the then-Artistic Director, Simon Dow. More recently, the project was featured at The University of Western Australia as part of the Symbiotica Biological Arts seminar series. Two dancers from the West Australian Ballet, Jayne Cooper-Smeulders and Penelope Bishop, have been integral to the development of this project. Jayne became the model for the Coppélia robot, and Penelope helped to create a body cast of Jayne. The project still remains a work in progress, with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts, Arts WA, and PICA.

Drake-Brockman describes how this project deals with “multi-order ‘simulacra’, in terms of the concepts developed by Jean Baudrillard. Specifically, I am making multiple Coppélia Project robots that are simulations of a real human dancer (Jayne) who is in turn in the role of Coppélia – that is, pretending to be a clockwork girl. In the ballet story itself, a real girl in turn pretends to be the clockwork Coppélia. The first, real, and original ‘Coppélia’ of course never existed at all.” This constant interplay between reality and artifice creates a multi-layered artwork that relies on the dancer’s ability to articulate both humanity and artificiality. As such, Drake-Brockman is literalising the original ballet’s major theme of what constitutes humanity in the face of technology and artificial machines.

Coppélia has always been an enormously popular ballet; it has been performed numerous times by The Australian Ballet. Drake-Brockman notes that at the heart of The Coppélia Project is the irony of watching a trained and graceful ballerina enact the awkward and robotic movements of an artificial machine that “apes” humanity. His project highlights the way ballet draws attention to our physicality as a symbol of our humanity, and the types of anxieties about our “authenticity” and individuality which are played out on this body. Comparable to films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999), The Coppélia Project enters the iconic Coppélia ballet into a sci-fi realm of modern technology that will only become more thought-provoking as the project develops.

Got a hankering for the original Coppélia? Order a DVD of The Australian Ballet’s performance.