Choreographer Crystal Pite’s The Tempest Replica is a splendid storm-tossed tale of magic, disaster and only partial redemption. Shakespeare ends his Tempest, on which Pite’s is closely based, with Prospero, his powers gone, his enemies forgiven, facing the audience and asking for their pardon in the form of applause to set him free. Pite has Prospero lying face down on the ground, four ghostly figures standing above him, soundlessly bringing their gloved hands together.
Eric Beauchesne, bearded, in dark shirt and pants, is a brooding, manipulative Prospero, but we watch this final defeat knowing he’s also a caring father, which adds dramatic texture to the action. Just prior, Pite foregrounds his fatherly care in one of the many evocative play-within-the-play scenes created from a spectacular use of shadow, projections and sound. This one shows Miranda, Prospero’s daughter (Cindy Salgado), growing up: on film, a toddler’s legs totter forward; then, on stage, Prospero bends to place his fingers precisely, firmly, on Miranda’s calves, pushing forward as if to encourage the motions of walking. When Ferdinand (Jermaine Maurice Spivey) rolls onto the stage – an echo of his stormy entrance near the beginning of the ballet – Miranda gushes like water toward him, down to the ground at his side, rolling in unison. Prospero quietly leaves. It’s a father’s generous renunciation – the future is Miranda and Ferdinand’s – and another dramatically rich moment.
The ensuing lover’s duet flows wonderfully with wave upon wave of movement, both partners lifting and being lifted, supporting and being supported. His body slips like seaweed over her sturdy back and shoulders; hers washes over his like sea foam.
The Tempest Replica is a two-part ballet (I’m calling it a ballet based on the formal, high-art aesthetic; though the movement is hardly balletic in any traditional sense, it is highly technical in its own right). In the first part, Beauchesne is the only recognizable figure. The other six performers are shrouded in white: their faces covered with white masks shaped like a fencer’s guard, their bodies in white skirts or trousers, gloves and shoes. This world is one of puppet figures, replicas of human beings that often walk stiffly like their legs are hinged at the joints and made of wood, not flesh.
An outline of Shakespeare’s Tempest is depicted, with act and scene numbers flashed onto the backdrop, as well as scene descriptions: “Prospero’s daughter sees the shipwreck”, “Prospero’s enemies are delivered to the island”, and so on. Dance does not easily fill in details of story, and Pite solves this in dynamic terms through several shadow plays and also through text. When Ariel (Sandra Marín Garcia) works her magic to enact Prospero’s plans for revenge, the lines “You are three men of sin” and “I have made you MAD” are projected. Like surtitles at the opera, these are easy to read, helpful and Pite uses them cannily as a textual accent, sometimes a playful one: when Miranda sleeps, a delightful burst of zzzzz’s floats upward.
The stunning shadow-puppet plays (projection design by Jamie Nesbitt) feature cutout figures and set pieces, dramatically lit and animated (I was reminded of the cut-paper silhouette films of pioneer animator Lotte Reiniger). In the shadow shows, Shakespeare’s plot is succinctly enacted, including events from the past, something pure movement cannot do. For instance, one tells how Prospero and Miranda came to be on the island: there’s a cutout silhouette of a castle, of swords, of a man with long curled fingernails – evil personified. A baby cries. We see the silhouettes of another man and a baby cast out on a boat, then of an island and a creature – Caliban, of course. We see the baby transform into a girl: time has passed.
In one instance on stage, Pite reverts to mime: Prospero points a long, bossy finger to indicate to Ferdinand that he should busy himself with moving a large rock from one place to another. The awkward mime broke the conventions of the piece: why not project text? Not only would it have fit in stylistically, it could also have provided information as to why the rock keeps getting tugged back (via a long white string) so Ferdinand has to move it again and again (Prospero wants to keep him busy to slow down his wooing of Miranda).
The focus on narrative could have been lightened a little, or at least the bondage to the original play’s scenes and acts, and the first half tightened. For the audience, there’s less emotional investment in these white-garbed ghosts of breathing, thinking, acting and reacting human beings, who are not as interesting to observe individually as their second-half counterparts.
Nancy Bryant costumes the characters in Pite’s act two in street clothes: we see faces, we read emotion, we enter into the human dimensions of the piece through multiple viewpoints, not just Prospero’s. In the power duet between Jirí Pokorný and Yannick Matthon, the two slide smoothly and precisely into place (everyone wears socks, so there’s much sliding throughout): no longer are they merely Prospero’s enemies, they are men with their own agenda. Caliban (Bryan Arias) is born of a witch, but is presented as an ordinary man – in a suit his outsider status becomes poignant. Pite demands much of her cast in this second part, not just as dancers but as actors, and everyone fulfilled their roles superbly.
In the epilogue, when four white-clad figures snatch Prospero up, raising him high into the air before dropping him face down on the ground, he lies quietly, though his limbs are uncomfortably splayed. It’s a loaded sequence, given how Prospero has been directing the action up until then. Interpret this role reversal as you will: The Tempest Replica is one of those pieces that leaves you with lots to talk about. There’s the work’s relationship to Shakespeare, a worthy touchstone, as well as to cinema, with Pite’s interest in storyboards evident in the structure she creates within; the first part is a sketch, the second a full-colour, fully acted production. There are also references to the past, to the literary source itself, with its magic and swordplay, aCrystal nd to the ancient art of shadow puppetry. And there are many references to life: to parental relationships, to romantic ones and to the way we treat the people around us.
Since its Frankfurt premiere in 2011, The Tempest Replica has toured North America, and still has a few stops to go till the final shows in New York at the end of November. It’s another major accomplishment for Pite, and I’d have liked a second viewing – as Caliban says in Shakespeare’s Tempest, “when I waked I cried to dream again” – but the two-night, sold-out run at the Playhouse Theatre had ended.
Check out our video blog featuring Pite: