Audiences’ fascination with ballets based on Shakespeare’s plays shows no sign of diminishing. The beauty of his language and the complexity of his characters, whether comic or tragic, historic or fantastic, continue to challenge choreographers to match their artistry with his. Last October, American Ballet Theatre added another play to its growing list of Shakespeare ballets when it premiered a uniquely dark adaptation of The Tempest by artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. The company will reprise the production during its Lincoln Center season this spring.
ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie hired Mark Lamos, director of Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse, to be the company’s dramaturge and act as a consultant for Ratmansky. “Alexei had already filled a notebook with ideas before I arrived,” Lamos says. “Basic patterns had been set for every scene, but dancers were encouraged to improvise.”
Ratmansky also passed up the opportunity for ballet fireworks if a simple gesture would better suit Shakespeare’s purpose. In one scene, Prospero (Marcelo Gomes), exiled duke of Milan and now ruler of the island where he had been a castaway, confronts his treacherous brother Antonio (Sascha Radetsky). Does Prospero burst onstage in a grand jeté followed by a double tour to celebrate having his brother in his power? No, he slowly advances toward Antonio, stops a yard or two away and holds out his hand. Awestruck, his brother returns the crown he had stolen years ago. “Some 60 words of text had been distilled into a restrained gesture that reveals Prospero’s refusal to be vindictive,” says Lamos.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of opportunities for showstopping roles in Shakespeare ballets. Just look at Mercutio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Puck in Ashton’s The Dream or Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brash defiance is their specialty. In The Tempest, Ratmansky created a variation of the pas de deux to demonstrate the power Prospero has over Ariel, his resident sprite and servant. As embodied by Daniil Simkin, Ariel repeatedly hurtles across the stage to leap into his master’s arms with such gravity-defying ease he seems to have helium in his veins. Their encounters are anything but affectionate, however; Prospero, who alternates promising Ariel his freedom with assigning him another task, always holds him out at arm’s length in midair to remind him who’s boss.
In one scene, Shakespeare actually requires a pas de trois that has taxed the ingenuity of stage directors and versatility of actors for centuries. The resident monster Caliban and two drunken sailors must roll around under a stinking cloak, swigging whiskey all the while. No problem at ABT: Ratmansky’s ingenuity and the agility of Herman Cornejo as Caliban and Craig Salstein and Julio Bragado-Young as the sailors turn this demanding grapple into an inspired entanglement that’s over all too soon.
The vastness of the great plays have given directors and choreographers ample room for many highly “personal” productions—some valid, some inspired, some outrageous. Ratmansky brings his Tempest to a haunting conclusion that concentrates on Caliban as the performance ends. Instead of remaining offstage after his exit as he does in the play, he is now onstage when the rest of the cast sails away. He becomes a tormented grotesque, skittering across the space in growing desperation as the fact of his isolation sinks in. The stage darkens as he shreds the pages of Prospero’s precious book of charms, which he lacks the ability to read. The bleakness of his solitude drives him mad, but it brings a new, bitter logic to Shakespeare.
Harris Green is a New York City dance writer.
The Tempest’s three principal men—Marcelo Gomes, Herman Cornejo and Daniil Simkin, all veterans of MacMillan’s Romeo—found Ratmansky’s Shakespeare adaptation made special demands.
As Prospero, Gomes has to embody authority every second he’s onstage. That task was no stretch for someone with his magnetic presence, but it may account for the effect in the only scene in which he demonstrates Prospero’s magic powers. “I have this great staff—not some puny magic wand—but what do I do with it?” he asks. “Alexei worked out a set of flourishes I perform not only before but behind me when I draw the charmed circle.” This ritual has the short-lived brilliance of a lightning bolt—it’s over in seconds.
Simkin, who is rarely still as Ariel, was sustained by the genuine outrage the play aroused in him at his character’s unrelieved servitude: “Prospero is always reminding Ariel he will release him as a servant, but treats him like a slave. He promises him freedom but always delays it.” Simkin’s every entrance reflected Ariel’s airborne essence and his yearning for freedom: “Alexei didn’t want symbolic movement, “ he says. “You needed to be expressive, to dance for the ‘big picture,’ to show what you feel, not pantomime it. ”
Cornejo’s Caliban offered a radical departure from his usual virtuoso parts. “I have only one jump,” he says. He also has his own approach to acting: “I like to rehearse without knowing too much about the part.” Ratmansky’s demand that he be “grounded” was enough to keep him close to the floor. With Cornejo’s exuberance suppressed, Caliban becomes a broken, piteous creature and The Tempest a work of dark, unsuspected depths rarely shown in the theater. —HG
Ballet companies all over are celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with new productions and revivals based on his plays (see Call Board for an interview with Royal Danish Ballet artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe about his new Twelfth Night and “Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale,” a behind-the-scenes peek at his new work for The Royal Ballet). Here’s a sampling:
Atlanta Ballet will stage Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, April 11–13; Joffrey Ballet will stage Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet, April 30–May 11; Scottish Ballet will present Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet at Sadler’s Wells in London, May 14–17; Stuttgart Ballet will present John Cranko’s version of Romeo and Juliet, select days June 12–July 29; Houston Ballet will stage John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, September 4–14.