Taking on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as Crystal Pite did with her production of The Tempest Replica, would be a challenging task for any choreographer. Centering around Prospero, the overthrown Duke of Milan, stranded on an island with his daughter Miranda, the play explores themes including magic, justice, and performance through its multiple plots. In the past half-century, The Tempest has also been looked at as a commentary on colonialism, the “discovery” of new lands, and the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Created on her company, Kidd Pivot, Pite’s The Tempest Replica had its New York premiere at the Joyce Theatre last week.
Sitting in my seat before the performance, I tried to make my way through the program’s summary of the play’s plot, by way of refresher. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “before” the performance, because, as is common in contemporary dance these days, one of the dancers, Eric Beauchesne, was already seated onstage, folding paper into origami. While Beauchesne’s all-black outfit originally made me think of a stagehand finishing up before the show started, it became clear once the curtain rose that he was both Prospero and the production’s director, organizing and commanding the action onstage. The other dancers, the “replicas” of the title, were dressed entirely in white, their heads entirely covered by alien-like wrappings. The homogenizing anonymity of these masks, along with the dancers’ robotic movements, positioned them as the pawns, manipulated and positioned by Prospero. While visually striking, this costuming choice, in addition to the limited movement vocabulary of these dancers, seemed terribly reductive, particularly with regard to the complexities and nuances of Shakespeare’s play.
The plot of The Tempest was explained through a variety of special effects, which were theatrically impressive, but didn’t seem to serve any further purpose. While the projection of the word “ISLAND” in large capitals on the neutral backdrop seemed an interestingly minimalist way of announcing the setting, it soon became clear that this was simply a lazy method of filling in the many gaps in the story. At one point, the word “daughter” was projected in light onto Miranda’s dress (While the various characters in Shakespeare’s play were given in the program, the dancers were not listed as portraying specific roles). Brief films of shadows, explanatory phrases, act and scene numbers, and lines from the text further filled in the complex narrative of the play. However, the production never took up any of the complexities of Shakespeare’s play, choosing rather to deal only with its surface elements. Despite the numerous devices used to convey the plot to us, all but the barest skeleton of the plot remained obscure. Why use Shakespeare’s play as a framework when so little of it was conveyed by the dancing?
I thought that perhaps this question would be answered by the second half of the performance, in which the “replicas” and persistent explanation disappeared, replaced by more impressionistic vignettes in which dancers represented distillations of the play’s themes in contemporary dress. This change in mode resulted in a dramatically expanded range of movements, as the dancers emerged as individuals, executing virtuosic displays of slicing leg extensions and rapid turns. However, despite the elaborate set-up of the piece’s first half, these dances seemed to be little more than a disconnected set of solos and duets, showing off the prowess of Pite’s talented dancers. While the emotions or relationships at the heart of these dances was clear, they never deepened or complicated our impressions of the scenes from the first half.
In the epilogue, the dancers returned in the costumes of the first half, but the roles were now switched. The white-clothed men were the actors, manipulating the now mannequin-like Prospero. After lowering him to the ground, the men began to clap, slowly and silently, celebrating what seemed like his death. In the play, the final applause plays a very different role, as Prospero, in his final lines after releasing his slaves, asks the audience to pardon and release him with their applause. With her revision, Pite seemed to be saying something about the death of the creator, or the assumption of power by the performers, but within the performance’s structure, it fell flat.
Dance is not incompatible with Shakespeare’s themes, as choreographers from Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to José Limon (The Moor’s Pavane, loosely based on Othello) have shown. Rather than simply transposing these narratives from one art form to another, these works succeeded through nuanced translation. However, if a dance requires its audience to understand literally the complexities of a written text, it is doomed to failure. Literal interpretations, by definition, rely on the surface value of the words in a text, while dance is a form that finds its value in moving beyond the literal, and in showing and expressing what words cannot. In expending so much effort to ensure that our literal understanding was complete, The Tempest Replica never succeeded in attaining this level of transcendence.