Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Tempest Worth Replicating

Last night's performance of Kidd Pivot's The Tempest Replica at the Playhouse concluded what had to have been the city's most highly anticipated dance event of the fall season. Pite's latest, and most explicit, exploration of narrative in dance, the piece is also the result of her first time working with a pre-existing script.

The work begins with long-time company member Eric Beauchesne, who plays Prospero, sitting cross-legged downstage right, in front of a large shimmery and billowing silver cloth. He is intently folding sheet after sheet of white paper into perfect origami sail boats, which he promptly lines up in a row. It's another kind of kinesthetic labour that is as precise and elegant as classical dance,. Additionally, it not only telegraphs for those in the audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare's play (or who haven't bothered to read Pite's careful synopsis of the action in the program) the famous opening high seas storm, but in the number and colour and scale of the boats' replication recalls one of Pite's explanations for the inspiration for the faceless, all-white fencing-like costumes worn by all the other dancers in the first part of her work: they are meant to recall the replica human figures used in architectural models.

Manipulating one of the boats in the same way that he will soon manipulate the bodily figures occupying his own island, Prospero speaks aloud the word "shipwreck," and then promptly calls the spirit Ariel (Sandra Garcia), the real architect of his designs. Ariel does not look particularly pleased by the summons, a reminder that she has not chosen to do Prospero's bidding, something captured in two simple movements repeated here that will become signature gestures for her throughout the work: a fluttering of her hands over her heart; and an elbow thrust akimbo out from her side, as reflex response perhaps to a phantom wing that has been clipped or tamped down by her master. Taking the paper boat from Prospero, Ariel places it in her mouth and starts to chew, which is the signal for the storm to begin.

Pite has said in past conversations about the work that it began with the notion of incorporating a shipwreck in a dancer's body. But she has also said that she was excited about the theatrical possibilities--lighting and sound effects--of representing a storm on stage. She marries these two ideas in the next sequence, in which we witness pre-recorded digital images of Ferdinand's (Jermaine Spivey) Act Two shipwreck solo projected onto the stage left portion of the scrim, which are then overlain with pelting rain, and with which the live, white-costumed body of the Act One Ferdinand interacts behind the scrim. It's an uncanny doubling, supplemented by Alonso (Bryan Arias) and Sebastian (Jiří Pokorný) and Antonio (Yannick Matthon) rolling on the floor upstage right.

This was the first of the night's surprises: not just Pite's sophisticated use of projections, but the amount of movement contained within them, and the extent to which they merged with the shadow outline of live movement on stage via lighting effects in front of and behind the piece's two cloth scrims (the first downstage one is pulled down after the storm by Prospero, to reveal a second upstage one). Other projections, such as Prospero's explanation to Miranda (Cindy Salgado) following the shipwreck of how they came to find themselves on the island as a result of Antonio's usurpation of Prospero's dukedom in Milan, are more clearly cinematic (often expressionistically so). This makes sense given Pite's explanation for her complementary method of conveying the major plot points of Shakespeare's play in successive bodily tableaux during the first part of the piece: she has called it a movement-based equivalent of storyboarding.

But even here there was another surprise--just how dancey many of these tableaux were. I hadn't witnessed but a few of these scenes as part of Pite's open rehearsals at SFU Woodward's in September, and so while I was prepared for Prospero's marionette-like manipulations of Miranda as she witnesses the storm, I did not expect the exuberant jive that she and Ferdinand break into once Prospero releases the prince from his Sisyphean labours and consents to letting the young lovers wed. Cinematic and kinesthetic narrative combine most successfully in the first half of the work in the sequence when we're first introduced to Caliban (Arias again), who slithers across the stage on all fours, led by Prospero and towards Miranda, seated stage left, as the projections economically telegraph (in the same direction) how the monster came to be enslaved by Prospero. Equal in visual effect is the banquet conjured by Ariel for Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Text in this first part mostly comes in the form of projected surtitles providing act and scene numbers, and a brief, one-line synopsis of the action. Occasionally, however, key words are projected onto unexpected surfaces: "daughter" onto Miranda's raised skirt, for example, and "doubt" onto one of Prospero's unfurled paper boats, held up by an unidentified, white-cloaked avatar in the final Act 5 sequence, which crucially has no textual synopsis accompanying its projected surtitle, and which, as crucially, displaces the play's epilogue, cuing the transition into the second half of Pite's piece as Prospero, clearly in need of new magic, calls aloud for Ariel once again.

Her arrival, now dressed in regular street clothes, begins the process of replaying in more pure dance form key scenes that were storyboarded for us in the first half. To paraphrase Pite, now that we know who everyone is, and the nature of their relationships to one another, we can concentrate on how the movement intensifies the emotions behind those relationships. Although all the dancers get brief solo moments during these sequences--and none more stunning than Spivey's live reproduction of the bodily shipwreck that we had previously witnessed digitally--Pite's basic architecture during the second half is the duet: between Prospero and Ariel; Prospero and Miranda; Antonio and Sebastian, Prospero and Caliban; and finally Miranda and Ferdinand. This is some of Pite's most complex and stunningly original partnering, giving a physical form to the degrees of indebtedness and obligation, choice and constraint, power and reciprocity, that mark both the connection and the distance between different characters. Thus, for example, the opening duet between Prospero and Ariel is notable for its gorgeous lifts; but the striving for flight that we intuit in Ariel's impossibly fluid leg extensions especially is counterbalanced by arms that remain locked with and pinned down by Prospero's. Similarly, Caliban remains in a hammer-lock for much of his duet with Prospero, and even when he does break free and stands up straight and smoothes down the suit jacket he is wearing as a sop to his wounded dignity and pride, he is just as quickly forced back down to the ground by the unrelenting Prospero, and must propel himself about the stage via his sits bones and knees.

Interestingly, Caliban is the only character/dancer other than Prospero who speaks while moving, in this case uttering, despite Prospero's best attempts to stifle his voice, his famous oath: "You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse." Otherwise, text in the second half comes mostly in the form of key projected lines that explicate further the movement sequences we see taking shape before us, or else layered in voice-over as part of the dense soundscape designed by Meg Roe and Alessandro Juliani to complement Owen Belton's electronic score.

The Tempest Replica ends with the epilogue that was forestalled in the first half, with Prospero, having given up magic, now being shadowed and eventually overwhelmed by the four other male dancers, now also back in their all-white costumes. In the final tableau, Prospero has been placed prone on the floor in a position akin to the one in which we first encounter Miranda at the start of the work; the other dancers stand over the stilled creator, silently clapping as the the lights fade to black. The image alludes, of course, to Prospero's concluding speech, in which he asks to be released from his own creative bondage via the audience's applause, and which most critics read as a self-reflexive comment, in this his final play, on Shakespeare's setting aside of his writing quill. 

Given Pite's own longstanding concerns with the dialectic of creation and destruction, and taken together with her announcement that following this tour of The Tempest Replica she plans to take a year's sabbatical, it is hard not to interpret this as simultaneously a farewell of sorts for a choreographer who does not know in what form--or even if--her company will reconstitute itself. In her pre-show talk Pite stated that she hoped, following their break, that the company would be back, and ideally with its current full and full-time employed complement of dancers--all of whom, it must be said, were on fire last night. But Pite also stated that such an arrangement would depend on finding a replacement for the funding from Frankfurt that in essence has allowed the company to create and tour for the past two years. I hope the cultural power brokers in this city were listening and that they throw all available resources her way.


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