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Baltic Dance Theatre in The Tempest

Posted on July 22, 2015


The Tempest

Baltic Dance Theatre, Baltic Opera House, Gdansk – June 14, 2015

There have been a number of Shakespeare plays made into ballets, notably Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although not that many contemporary choreographers have chosen the Bard for their source material. Izadora Weiss has bucked that trend by making full-length works out of both those plays and she has now added an exhilarating production of The Tempest to the repertoire of Baltic Dance Theatre, the company she has led since 2010.

Weiss joins a thin line of choreographers to have tackled the play most likely to have been Shakespeare’s last, including Glen Tetley (1979) and Rudolf Nureyev (who had two attempts, in 1977 and 1982); although choreographic interest has accelerated in recent years with interpretations by Crystal Pite (The Tempest Replica, 2011), Alexei Ratmansky (2013), Krzysztof Pastor (2014) and David Bintley, whose version for Birmingham Royal Ballet is due to be premiered in 2016. All of these choreographers must have been acutely aware of the potential for getting wrecked on the rocks of The Tempest’s myriad complexities.

For her part, Weiss has cleverly navigated the narrative with clarity, distilling the plot’s essence into 80 minutes of absorbing dance theatre. She adopts a non-linear approach, punctuated by flashbacks and symbolism, achieving an end result that is both a masterpiece of simplicity and yet captures The Tempest’s magical wonder of theatrical illusion.

This play has inspired over 40 operatic interpretations and a plethora of other music and so, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Weiss’ production is her selection of a soundtrack based on Mahler’s First Symphony, extended by the famous adagio from his Fifth Symphony (both as conducted by Leonard Bernstein). It’s an inspired choice that serves the plot’s diverse moods with faithful authenticity; restrained, dark, stormy, energetic and romantic. Mahler’s familiar music provides evocative and descriptive themes for each of the key characters and luscious melodies for the key dance events. It is periodically interspersed with the sounds of a windswept island being battered by both natural and supernatural elements.

Central to any interpretation of The Tempest is the main character of Prospero, in which role Filip Michalak gives a towering and expressive performance. He dances with strength and authority in a series of duets with virtually every other major character and varies his moods effectively, from the gentle protectiveness of the father guiding his infant daughter to the safety of this remote island; the powerful sorcerer whipping up the tempest that will cause the shipwreck of his duplicitous brother, Antonio (played with arrogant disdain by Nikita Vasylenko); and finishing as a man, shorn of his magical powers, patiently resigned to the acceptance of death.

Prospero’s island is represented by the idea of a women-only asylum, based upon a simple semi-circle of wooden panels (designed by Hanna Szymczak) that have four haphazard gaps through which characters enter and leave the visible stage. These bare wooden panels (not unlike miniature sight screens for a cricket match) provide a platform for Prospero’s magical act of flight and represent the swirling chaos of the storm as they are skilfully manhandled around in violent circles by the male cast, like a rather dangerous game of theatrical, fairground “dodgems”. The simplicity of Szymczak’s set design is offset by the strikingly effective lighting created by Weiss herself, in collaboration with Piotr Miskiewicz.

There are six Spanish dancers in the current Baltic ensemble, and two of these lead the female cast: Naya Monzon Alvarez portrays the adult Miranda (a character first encountered as an infant in the arms of her father); and Ariel is also played by a woman. Tura Gómez Coll articulates Weiss’ androgynous interpretation of Prospero’s spirit-slave with a distinctive twisting, angular, rolling and spiky movement style. The opening scenes are dominated by the women, where Ariel is joined by a sextet of scantily-clad spirits and nymphs, costumes including leather hot pants, yellow frilly knickers and denim shorts. This group of seven female dancers work from deep pliés and move harmoniously in lunging, rolling, turning and marching motifs.

Their dancing is interrupted by the first appearance of Caliban (Joel Mesa Gutierrez, another Spanish dancer who is new to BDT this season). He is bald, bearded, wearing tight red shorts and a fur waistcoat; utilising a movement palette that is appropriately manic and twitchy, yet calm and comforted when caressed by Ariel and the other nymphs. They play with him like gymnasts experimenting on new apparatus but their mood turns darker and Caliban is ostracised after the representation of his attempted assault on Miranda.

The spirits and nymphs acquire false wings just prior to Prospero’s magical flight over the set, leading into a strong solo by Michalak – to Mahler’s fanfare – replete with strong jetés en tournants.   We see a flashback to Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, arriving with the sound of the wind and another that represents the death of Sycorax (Agnieszka Wojciechowska), which takes place to the solemn, funereal music that Mahler based on the popular children’s round, “Frère Jacques”.

After Prospero summons the storm, appropriately emphasised by the stormily agitated (stürmisch bewegt) fourth movement of Mahler’s symphony, the male corps arrive, eating up the stage as an oval-shaped group of eight, before being blown away like tumbleweed at the end of their ensemble dance. The unconscious Ferdinand (Oscar Pérez Romero), son of the King of Naples, is revived by Miranda and Mahler’s luscious melodies are ripe for a tender love duet, full of soft, swirling lifts.   Their love-making is interrupted by Prospero who violently throws Ferdinand around the stage.

Radosław Palutkiewicz provides a strong and effective cameo as Alonso, the King of Naples, wearing an elaborate baroque costume, including a feathered cockade hat and a large cane. His arrival leads to a pre-wedding orgy of dressing-up when the 20 dancers are joined as wedding guests by a large group of actors. Szymczak’s costumes are vivid enhancements of character and splendid vessels of the work’s overall design quality. Who would think of covering Caliban in a pink, feathered boa?

Prospero is tied into a straightjacket by the vengeful Caliban, Trinculo (Bartosz Kondracki) and the drunken Stefano (Oleksandr Khudimov) and sits resignedly at the front of stage right (with Ariel reflecting his pose at the opposite side). Antonio taunts his incapacitated brother but is interrupted by the arrival of the King and the wedding party. Palutkiewicz dances a dandified little baroque solo, articulated by exquisite port de bras, disciplined pirouettes and dainty steps. It brings the first symphony to an elegant end with the dutiful applause of the wedding guests.

After the wedding party has vacated the stage, the sound of heavy wind and rain returns, emphasising the sorry state of Prospero and Ariel. With the opening chords of the Fifth Symphony adagio, Ariel slowly approaches Prospero and releases him. In return, he gives the spirit freedom by removing the non-functioning wings. As Ariel leaves, starkly lit from the side, Gómez Coll gently points her finger upwards and then moves it to indicate the newly-wed Miranda and Ferdinand, who proceed into their second duet; a more urgent and mature expression of love, danced in close harmony on the very edge of the strong light. As they leave, an angel (Beata Giza) appears, dressed in blue bodice and long lace skirt, dancing a lyrical and fluid solo, which leads into a gentle duet with Prospero. With the fading of Mahler’s beautiful adagio, they both walk slowly backwards out of the light, her hand covering his eyes in a finale that has a powerful emotional impact, not dissimilar to the ending of Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, to the same composer’s music.

Weiss is proud to declare herself a protégé of Jiří Kylián – having been mentored by him at Nederlands Dans Theater (and, indeed, BDT has a growing repertoire of his work) – and she shares his skill of structuring work effectively. She employs challenging music and creates impressive openings that draw the audience in, with memorable endings that stay deeply rooted in the consciousness. Weiss paces her work with an impressive sense of theatre, invariably leaving her audiences wanting more.

Outstanding full-length dance theatre is alive and kicking in Gdansk, and this skilfully constructed adaptation of The Tempest deserves to be seen beyond the Baltic shores.

Photographs by K Mystkowski.

Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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