'The Tempest Replica': Like dreaming with your eyes open

Choreographer Crystal Pite presents a visual feast at On the Boards. In spite of a barely-narrative second half.
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Kidd Pivot's "The Tempest Replica"

Choreographer Crystal Pite presents a visual feast at On the Boards. In spite of a barely-narrative second half.

Watching a Crystal Pite dance work is a little like dreaming with your eyes open. Pite has an extraordinary talent for creating indelible images that transport the viewer to another universe and into an almost trancelike state.

In her flawed masterpiece The Tempest Replica, Pite’s musings on Shakespeare’s The Tempest become a journey into the psychological underpinnings of the Bard’s play. Rather than presenting a literal dance version of the play, at least in the first part, Pite offers an episodic interpretation featuring selected scenes from the drama which, taken together, capture the essence of the story and its emotional undercurrents. The second part, which lasts approximately one third of the work’s 80 minutes, is less accessible, but more on that later.

One mark of Pite’s genius is her cinematic approach to dance, which is nowhere more evident than in the production’s opening storm sequence. Video projections against a rippling transparent silk curtain brilliantly suggest a powerful hurricane, while shadowy figures behind the scrim gyrate and stagger across the stage as though tossed this way and that by surging waters. Few contemporary movement artists use projections as effectively as Pite and The Tempest Replica utilizes them in a myriad of clever ways — to identify characters, indicate states of being and portray parts of the narrative.

Pite also has an exceptional flair for the visually compelling. In the first half of The Tempest Replica all the characters, with the exception of Prospero, appear as supernatural beings, clad in white from head to toe and wearing fabric-covered fencing masks that completely obscure their heads and faces. As they act out selected scenes from the play — Miranda’s spying of the shipwreck, Caliban’s enslavement to Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda’s passionate meeting, Ariel’s flittering — the effect is surrealistic and spellbinding.

Pite’s movement style is equally mesmerizing. When we first meet Prospero and his daughter Miranda, he moves her across the stage as though she were a puppet, manipulating her arms, legs and body into a series of stiff, awkward positions. It’s an appropriate allusion since, more than any other character, Miranda is entirely innocent, a passive victim of her family’s internecine battles.

With the entry of each new character, Pite’s robotic style changes ever so slightly. Ariel’s hand flutters to suggest her sprightly nature, Caliban slithers along the floor snake-like while the jerky, menacing movements of Antonio and Sebastian readily communicate their scheming natures. Only Prospero moves naturally, his humanity serving to propel the action forward.

Suddenly, the “white” act concludes and the mood and look of the piece change. Ariel, now dressed in street clothes, joins Prospero onstage and they begin a duet. Soon they’re joined by the other dancers, also in everyday dress, and over the next 20 minutes or so the company engages in a series of pure movement sequences with the seeming intent of communicating some sort of veiled narrative.

But with the exception of a lovely duet for a woman, who appears to be Miranda, and her lover Ferdinand, the meaning of the various scenes is baffling. The transparent, plot-driven first section of The Tempest Replica sets up the expectation that there will be an elaboration of the plot in the second part, especially since the dancers are the same. But any hope of that is soon dashed.

From the score, which has morphed from a gloomy soundscape into a chaotic urban din, it’s immediately obvious we’re now in a very real, contemporary environment. A group of partygoers appears, one man plays a game of Russian roulette but stops just short of shooting Prospero (or at least the dancer who previously portrayed Prospero) and a male and female (Prospero and Ariel in the first part) engage in a stunning pas de deux full of elongated stretches and lifts.

Finally, the Prospero character is left alone on the stage, at which point three male figures, dressed all in white as they were in the first part, appear. They carry Prospero aloft, then set him face down on the ground as if to bury him. It’s clear “Prospero” is now dead and the dance ends with the figures standing above him, silently, slowly clapping.

As inventive and beautiful as Pite’s movement is in this second part – especially the male dancer who manages to appear like he’s dashing across the stage when he is in fact moving very slowly – I kept wanting the white figures to reappear and the dancing to revert to some sort of narrative structure. My disappointment verged on anger as I realized this second part had only the vaguest and mostly unclear connection to the first part. All the magic that Pite had created in the first section dissipated as I waited impatiently for the ballet to end.

Pite has assembled a group of exceptionally talented dancers — and an extraordinary production team — for her company Kidd Pivot. Sandra Marin Garcia in particular brings elegance and grace to her role as Ariel and Jermaine Maurice Spivey makes Ferdinand an alternately tragic and a joyful figure. But it’s almost unfair to single out these dancers above the others. Like Marie Chouinard – whose company appears at Meany Hall in January – Pite has assembled a troupe willing to follow her into the most enigmatic territory and create moments of visual beauty that take one’s breath away.

Any performance by Kidd Pivot is worth far more than the price of admission or, in this case, the time spent trying to get on a wait list for seats, which is what you’ll need to do to see Crystal Pite’s The Tempest Replica while it’s still in town.

If you go: Kidd Pivot’s The Tempest Replica at On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, through October 25. All performances are sold out but OtB has a day-of-performance waiting list. Information and wait list details at 206.217.9888.


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