Delving into the recesses of Prospero’s mind: Dance Theater Heidelberg in Island

Theater Heidelberg
December 10, 2022

Shakespeare’s The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, who, usurped by his brother, fled to a distant island where he tried to use his magical powers to manipulate people and reality, and to return home.

Loosely based on the play, Island by director Grzegorz Bral and choreographer Iván Pérez, visualises the protagonist as a madman, his island the lonely old man’s claustrophobic realm. We see his world through his imagination as he creates all the situations. But while its links to Shakespeare’s work easily traceable, Island is not an adaptation of it, and certainly no comedy.

To an accompaniment of text by Alicja Bral, and music by Jean Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychły alongside a couple of traditional Georgian pieces, it is a work full of melancholy. The dance, musical and visual layering are irresistible as the dancers of Dance Theater Heidelberg and the singers of the opera choir of the Theater und Orchester Heidelberg, initially separate groups, increasingly come together in a single ensemble, the latter coming into and moving around the dance space. It was outstandingly performed.

Dance Theater Heidelberg in Island by Iván Pérez
Photo Susanne Reichardt

It all takes place on stage surrounded by white walls that could represent the island, a sanatorium, or perhaps the prison that is Prospero’s mind. The space is bare save for mirrors on the walls and chairs, which are used increasingly. Together with the light and darkness, and black costumes for all, they create the atmosphere and paint the space. There are signs and clues as to meaning, both in song and dance, but much is left to the viewer’s imagination.

The work is fragmentary, its fifteen sections shifting quickly from one thought or reflection to another. There are no characters as such, certainly no one Prospero, although it is easy to read the dancers as multiple embodiments of him.

The opening poetic monologue, delivered by Thamaris Carvalho, sets the tone. Although the text suggests it is not spoken by Prospero himself, it delivers the audience into the depths of his mind: his loneliness and despair. That’s reflected by Mathias Theisen in a solo full of soft falls and roll. His arms sometimes seem to bat away things unseen as if in frustration but, at other times, embrace the space.

Yi-wei Lo in Island by Iván Pérez
Photo Susanne Reichardt

Subsequent early scenes appear to reflect the environment, especially the sea. In ‘Panginis’, arms then bodies ripple around the line of dancers like a gentle swell, before the waves get bigger. In ‘Lament’, Marc Galvez whips up a storm of athletic fast spins and falls as if he is being battered, in mind as well as in body. ‘Waves’ sees more of the same, but now from the whole ensemble, the dance getting increasingly frantic as the choir’s voices get stronger. There’s a suggestion of looking for a way out, for rescue, for safety, perhaps, although the fact the space is ‘walled in’ emphasises the lack of an escape route.

The choreography gets increasingly varied. ‘Mantra’ presents ten dancers in close pairs. On the spot, bodies fold and undulate around each other. The performers manipulate each other, but is that an aid or support, an attempt to stop escape, or a reflection of doubts about whether to stay or try to leave? In ‘Monster’, they shift from one striking tableau to another. Sometimes one appears to sit on a throne created by the bodies of the others, sometimes one peers out from the others as if looking out from a cave.

Most arresting is ‘Ariel’s Song’, however, the only section apart from ‘Prospero (Prologue)’ where there is a direct reference to a Tempest character. Inés Belda Nácher dances a beautiful sweeping solo that becomes a duet with the caring supportive Julián Lazzaro. A dance full of sweeping limbs and gorgeous suspensions, she is later supported in turn by Lucía Nieto Vera and then Galvez in much the same way.

The mirrors on the set walls play an increasingly important role. Taken down, they are used to reflect the lights, most cleverly in ‘De Ordine Orbium’, where they are moved to create dancing reflections on the back wall of the space that coalesce to form a jewel-like pattern. In ‘Psalm 25’, they are laid on the floor, acting like a shoreline that imprisons Yi-wei Lo on an ‘island’ before dramatically closing in on her like an ever-shrinking cage.

Dance Theater Heidelberg and the opera choir of the Theater und Orchester Heidelberg in Island by Iván Pérez
Photo Susanne Reichardt

Lo also leads in ‘Gerygone’, that sees her swing across the stage in a harness like a bird that has found some freedom at last. Perhaps she’s the ‘kite in the sky’ of the accompanying text from The Bird by Aristophanes.

In ends, perhaps appropriately, with dance to music inspired by a traditional Greek lament. The scene also has the best lighting effect as shadowy reflections of the singers are bounced onto the back wall creating an image that looks not unlike a classical frieze.

There are a couple of lighter, quirky moments, but it’s the sadness and melancholy that pervades. As it constructs metaphors and paints its pictures, Island is an intense, magnetic work that puts a new face on Shakespeare’s drama. It grabs you and doesn’t let go. Perhaps that’s because it’s not only a reflection of the deep recesses of Prospero’s mind, but of today’s world and the powerlessness and longing so often felt by many. Perhaps what we see is part of us too. Perhaps, as Pérez says in his programme note, “a bit of Prospero exists in each of us.”