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The Tempest – with its fairytale romance and exotic setting, its good guys and bad guys, its winged sprite and grovelling “monster” – looks as fit for dance as Shakespearean ballet perennials A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet.
And indeed Alexei Ratmansky has shown an affinity for dreamlike tales about magical, alien helpmates (The Firebird, the Little Humpbacked Horse, Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker). But this 45-minute one-acter for American Ballet Theatre to Sibelius’s nimble, haunting score proved a bumpy affair.
Ratmansky excelled at distinguishing each bond that magician mastermind Prospero forged with his spellbound subjects. ABT’s resident choreographer was less effective, however, at delineating the characters themselves, and thus animating Shakespeare’s vexing question: what in their destinies do the sprite Ariel, the hag-born “slave” Caliban and “wondrous” Miranda owe to the tyrant? And what to their own will?
Prospero, at least, registered brilliantly. The sumptuous Marcelo Gomes radiated like the sun when he opened his chest to the ceiling or unfolded his legs in the air: a magus in full command of his considerable powers.
When he partnered daughter Miranda (an aptly innocent, eager Sarah Lane), he held her from behind so she could not see how he manoeuvred her. Her beloved, Ferdinand (Joseph Gorak), in contrast, met her face-to-face to joyfully bandy steps.
In a tour de force as Ariel, virtuoso Daniil Simkin leapt high but with a textured muscularity that brought out the contradiction of flight – the very symbol of freedom – but flight dictated by another. When Prospero finally set the fairy free, though, Ariel resorted to the same steps. Had the sprite lost his taste for sucking wildly “where the bee sucks”, or had Ratmansky run out of steam?
Most disappointing was Caliban. Graced with the play’s most vivid verse, the island native dilates on the natural bounty of “jay’s nest ... clust’ring filbert ... young scamels from the rock”. The choreographer lent hapless Herman Cornejo a similar organic beauty only in his endearing exits and entrances, in which he rolled on and off, like a child down a grassy hill. Otherwise, the magnificent dancer was reduced to the simian moves of La Bayadère’s hairy four-legged holy men. Ratmansky does give Caliban the last word, but what good is it if until then he only grunts?