American Ballet Theatre premieres Alexei Ratmansky’s The Tempest and revives Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita.
Had Shakespeare happened upon American Ballet Theater’s production of Alexei Ratmansky’s The Tempest, he might have recognized the characters of his eponymous play, but been bewildered by the absence of words—wondering how on earth audiences in this vast Lincoln Center theater could understand the story, let alone the back story. But, oh how amazed and thrilled he would have been by the setting! His mature hero Prospero wasn’t quite the wizard that designer Santo Loquasto can be when his brilliance mates with a technology that can indeed create “such things as dreams are made on.”
Jean Sibelius’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest consists of 34 short pieces, written to accompany a 1926 performance of the play in Copenhagen’s Royal Theater (or maybe just to complement it—the full score lasts close to an hour). Ratmansky (with help from dramaturge Mark Lamos) had to adapt to Shakespeare’s plot what are essentially musical portraits of the characters and their moods, which explains the program note that precedes the synopsis: “The ballet is at once a fragmented narrative as well as a meditation on some of the themes of Shakespeare’s play.”
Loquasto’s set and Robert Wierzel’s lighting provide much of the ballet’s drama and its poetry. It’s almost miraculous how the painted backcloth of a hulking ship lying on its side vanishes into layers of raging sea and another ship falls to pieces and emerges onstage as a skeleton of itself. Lightning flashes, the Sibelius’s overture roils and storms, and male and female sea spirits (smartly clad in blue and white) leap about in wild disorder, as Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, conjures up the tempest that wrecks the ship and lands on his island five royal personages and their two servants—all inert on the shore. Prospero, via Ratmansky and his colleagues, has masterminded a thrilling scene, although his lovely daughter Miranda pities the perhaps-drowned voyagers.
Shakepeare wrote a revenge play that turned into one about forgiveness—all engineered through magical trickery. Two of the castaways are very bad lots. Years ago, Prospero’s brother Antonio usurped the dukedom of Milan and exiled Prospero and his very young daughter to this deserted island. Now Antonio tries to convince Sebastian to kill his brother, the King of Naples, and take over the crown. Through the maneuvers of the sea spirits and Prospero’s indentured servant, Ariel, a creature of the air, these four travelers, plus Gonzalo (a lord who remained faithful to Prospero) are revived but spirited away to a remote part of the island. Prospero keeps the king’s son, Ferdinand near his abode, planning (after a few subterfuges) to let him marry the instantly in-love Miranda.
Once the storm has abated, how can Ratmansky show us these machinations, or, at least, their outline? He prefers to do it through dancing, with a minimum of pantomime, and sometimes this works superbly. At other times, key moments or elements of character become obscured or happen so quickly you might miss them. Ratmansky shows Prospero’s betrayal by Antonio in a shorthand flashback. Prospero has set his crown aside while reading one of his many books, and Antonio snatches it and puts it on his own head. But Prospero hasn’t exactly settled down for a good read, he lays a huge book on the ground and opens it briefly as if he’s checking a recipe (there was a fumble with this power transfer at the November 5 performance).
Ariel has some wonderful dancing to do; he seems almost always to be soaring into flight with all manner of buoyant steps. Flame-haired and clad in white, Gabe Stone Shayer is not as slim and ethereal looking as the first-cast Ariel, Danil Simkin, but he’s a splendid jumper—dramatic in his tantrum when Prospero delays freeing him, and ecstatically airborne when he’s finally freed. As Prospero’s other servant, Caliban, a witch’s whelp, James Whiteside has less to do, but skulks and rolls and grovels and vaults crookedly in fine style. His lust for Miranda and his love-hate relationship with Prospero are there, but we don’t fully sense his feelings. In the end, when the others board a magically repaired ship together, and he’s abandoned, alone and howling, his anguish doesn’t touch us as much it should.
As might be expected, Ratmansky choreographs a lovely, innocent duet for Miranda and Ferdinand. They bound about with a sense of discovery; he is the first young man she has seen, and romantic love is a new experience. When Prospero, feigning anger, assigns Ferdinand to hard labor (concealing from him that his father, the king, is alive), and Ferdinand starts pushing one of the pieces of scenery offstage, Miranda sneaks over to help him. A sweet touch on Ratmansky’s part. Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews dance the roles beautifully.
Miranda also dances with her father. Their pas de deux expresses very tenderly both his education of her and his control of her. Cory Stearns performs the role of Prospero with his usual aplomb and physical gifts, but he’s not completely convincing as an intellectual, a sorcerer, a nobleman, and the powerful ruler of this island. Those who know the text think of Prospero as mature. The Tempest was probably Shakespeare’s last play; he wrote it in 1611, five years before his death at 51 or so. Many have likened Prospero’s speech at the end of the play—a speech in which he renounces his magic powers—to Shakespeare’s taking leave of playwriting.
I can understand Ratmansky wanting Prospero to be young and hale enough to dance, but Loquasto has costumed him like a young castaway: breeches; a tattered, short-sleeved shirt, open to display his chest; and a wig of long, matted wig. This attire doesn’t give Stearns gravitas; he just looks unnecessarily unkempt (especially since Prospero’s magical powers have kept his daughter very well-groomed) and contributes to making the character seem less masterful than he should be.
In both casts, Duncan Lyle and Alexei Agoudine are properly evil as the corrupt brothers. Grant DeLong as the faithful Gonzalo and Thomas Forster as Alonso, King of Naples, play their roles convincingly. Sean Stewart and Sterling Baca, as Alonso’s servants, act rollicking drunkenness with flair.
David Barker conducted Sibelius’s powerful score, and during certain passages, the orchestra was augmented by the New York Choral Society and mezzo soprano Shirin Eskandadi.
Sibelius shared the musical honors of ABT’s November 5th program with J.S. Bach. Stanton Welch’s 2001 Clear, the evening’s opener, is set to Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor. Welch’s choreography offers no insights into the music, but it does present one of ABT’s assets: its exceptional roster of male dancers. In Clear, the principal man to show off his superior technique is Marcelo Gomes, and he is indeed splendid, making every step look part of a large, more musical arc. This can be tricky, because Welch inserts occasional hard-to-read quirks. Gomes occasionally covers his eyes, smacks his chest, and wobbles his head.
Welch created a handsome duet that Calvin Royal and Blaine Hoven perform excellently, slipping from counterpoint into unison and back into close canon. Matthews, Luis Ribagorda, Arron Scott, and Eric Tamm are Gomes’s other virtuosic companions, although there’s not much fraternizing. Gomes is also the one who gets the girl (Julie Kent eloquently reprising her original role), although the other men get to hoist her around. (Given the reports of frat-house rape, it’s a wonder that Kent ventures alone into this male enclave; luckily the guys would rather leap high and beat their legs together than anything else.)
Lisa Pinkham lights now one half of the stage floor, then the other, which must mean something as dramatic, since in the ending, Kent and Gomes clutch each other in a pool of light, and she reaches toward the invisible sky.
There was understandably a great deal of advance publicity about The Tempest. Ratmansky! Shakespeare! Sibelius! Loquasto! Magic! Fantasy! The revival of Twyla Tharp’s spell-binding Bach Partita all but snuck into the public’s awareness. We need to salute ballet master Susan Jones, who reconstructed this complex 1983 work (one she had probably seen in the making).
The 1980s were glory days for Tharp. She was choreographing wonderful dances for her company. She was welcome in the ballet world that she had breached in 1973 with Deuce Coupe for the Joffrey and Push Comes to Shove for ABT in 1976. Bach Partita engages with the composer’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin in ways both reverent and impudent, always delving into the musical structure.
Bach Partita’s five sections feature three principal couples, their small entourages, and more. Loquasto has kept their costumes simple and in shades of brown and beige. When the superb violinist, Charles Yang, begins to play (from the pit) what gradually becomes fiendishly difficult music, Tharp shows herself as a very well-behaved person who knows ballet’s history and codes, despite her own rambunctious earlier work. Best begin with symmetry. If two of the first movement’s four couples are backing Veronica Part and Matthews, then they should mirror each other on opposite sides of the stage. But before long, you notice considerable busyness going on behind the two princely dancers who hold down center. And Tharp is off and running.
Those four quick-footed pairs also slip in and out of the second part of the piece, in support of Paloma Herrera and Joseph Gorak, a gorgeous couple, ample in their dancing. They (the secondary pairs) break the classical mode, just as Bach sometimes lets the bow scrape the strings into an occasionally fervent outburst. For the first time, they drop to their knees for a moment. They occasionally jut their hips forward.
Craig Salstein and Isabella Boylston take over the fourth section. It’s a Gigue, and everyone’s feet fly, as if the stage floor were a tapestry and they were needling bright patterns into it— just as Yang is stitching Bach’s notes onto the air at a daredevil speed. This principal couple has a new entourage of three pairs, and when Boylston and Salstein (vibrant alone and together) leave the stage briefly, the six take complexity to new heights.
Tharp is full of surprises. She knows how we’ve been in trying to take everything in, so she gives our eyes a little rest. In the final Chaconne, Herrera, Part, and Boyleston take turns alone onstage, dancing beautifully. But while Boyleston is frolicking through a fast passage—surprise!—a horde of new women floods the stage. There are sixteen of them, all wearing dresses longer than those we’ve seen up to now. Even though Tharp deploys them in squads of eight, they mix with the coming-and-going dancers from all the previous sections, during which time the choreographer recycles and transforms steps from earlier passages that we didn’t realize we remembered.
Bach’s last-movement Chaconne, luckily, has some soft, dreamy moments, and Tharp reminds us of that as she backtracks toward a conclusion, re-acquainting us with the dancers we’ve come to know and admire, and then winnowing them away, thinning the complexity she has created. At the countdown, the seven secondary pairs exit the dancing and the stage, one by one. Then Part and Matthews, then Boyleston and Salstein. Herrera and Gorak, now alone on stage, quiet Tharp’s stupefying work to its conclusion.