Streamed online from Teatr Wielki, Warsaw
January 29, 2021
In 2014, and in cooperation with Dutch National Ballet, Polish National Ballet Artistic Director Krzysztof Pastor adapted Shakespeare’s third-last play, The Tempest for dance. Recently streamed by the Warsaw company, it is simultaneously contemporary and respectful of its source, magical and often poetic.
Pastor tells the story through the memories of an old Prospero but ignores the former Duke of Milan’s desire for revenge on his brother, who ousted him, and indeed many of the other characters. There is no Gonzalo, for example. Instead, he extracts those elements and only those characters that interest him.
Each of four scenes is presaged by the old man conjuring up a storm with the help of Ariel that revives his memories. The various relationships are all depicted eloquently. The dance language is expressive yet natural.
Beautiful backing video projections of grey seascapes, sand dunes and waving sea grasses by Iranian artists Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari play an important role. The opening shots of water and a closed eye emphasise distance, physically but also in time. Below, Jean Kalman’s attractive and minimal set consists merely of the stumpy remains of a large tree and a glowing red circle in which most of the action takes place. Sat leaning back against the tree’s trunk, Iranian actor Abbas Bakhtiari, the elderly Prospero, remembers and reflects.
The scene-opening storms are evoked by Bakhtiari, who produces dramatic, thunderous, stormy sounds from a daf, a large Iranian frame-drum. The ensemble act as waves and wind, carrying the bodies of the young Prospero and his daughter Miranda; and later Ferdinand, Stephano and Trinculo. As events play out, the old man casts a shadowy presence, hovering in the background, watching, his face often looming over the happenings on the stage below.
In the play, Caliban is Prospero’s slave and the only native inhabitant of the island; frequently referred to as a monster by the other characters. Pastor takes an alternative view, not only not bestialising him but seeing him as one of many indigenous people. Played by Paweł Koncewoj, in dress and dance, he looks no different from the other main characters, and it is he who carries Yuka Ebihara as Miranda from the waves. In the spirited pas de deux that follows, she shows all the vulnerability of the almost 15-year-old she is supposed to be.
It’s clear that the stylish Vladimir Yaroshenko as Prospero is simply trying to protect his daughter but when he tries to put a stop to the relationship, the explosion is fairly predictable, Ebihara letting rip with as much teenage frustration and aggression as she can muster. The three-way set to with Caliban is conveyed dramatically in a superbly choreographed dance-fight.
If anything, Ebihara’s next duet with Maksim Woitiul as the newly shipwrecked Ferdinand is even more girlishly playful. As she flirts, he spins and turns with ease. After another disagreement with her father, her return to Ferdinand finds a change of mood. Now the dance is more intense with some sweeping lifts, although the still decidedly unhappy Prospero’s return ensures a stormy finale.
After the interval, the turning of attention to Stephano (Bartosz Zyśk) and Trinculo (Kurusz Wojeński) brings light relief. The mimed comedy has all the subtlety of a silent movie but it is well done and brings a smile. Their attempts to beat up Caliban leave little to the imagination either, the darkness on stage matched by that in the score.
After Stephano and Trinculo attack Prospero, with the help of the native islanders, the dangerous dogs produced by Ariel (Patryk Walczak) are vividly portrayed by projections and some startlingly effective canine full masks worn by some of the dancers.
When all is finally resolved, the look on Bakhtiari’s face speaks volumes. His Prospero realises what he has done, what he has lost. It needs no words, no dance.
In keeping with the rest of the work, Tatyana van Walsum’s costumes are simple: loose shirts and trousers for the men, and a beautiful airy dress for Miranda. The corps add a dose of dramatic colour, the men and women of the storms in long blue or red skirts.
The score of largely 16th and 17th-century English music works well. Purcell is to the fore with, appropriately, the overture from The Tempest, selections from The Fairy Queen and Funeral Music for Queen Mary among the choices. Elsewhere there’s Robert Johnson, Matthew Locke and Thomas Tallis, plus new music by Michel van der Aa. Tallis’ Spem im alium, which plays at the opening, is especially atmospheric. Spoken text from the play is also effective.
Pastor’s The Tempest is a beautiful production, succinctly choreographed; one that makes you want to see more of his work. There is never any doubt about what is happening and how people feel, inside and towards one another, and you can’t ask for much more from narrative ballet. The stark emptiness of the stage actually helps, constantly drawing the eye to the action. This Tempest grabs you and keeps a tight hold throughout.