It is becoming an increasingly rare event in the dance world for a major company to live up to its own hype, and Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot had quite a bar set before opening night of The Tempest Replica at the Joyce. And – almost unbelievably – expectations were met. Ms Pite managed to craft a completely engrossing and almost entirely narrative piece, replete with awe-inducing partnering, scenic surprises, and unparalleled performative prowess from a staggeringly talented cast of seven.
Ms Pite’s newest piece is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it – like much of her work – is a mix of movement, text, and visual design. Throughout the first half of the piece (which runs without an intermission), it is clear that Eric Beauchesne’s Prospero is the storyteller in charge; all other characters (the “replicas”) are clothed entirely in white, all but Sandra Marín Garcia’s Ariel wearing white, face-covering helmets that look as if they belong on professional fencers. Beauchesne asks Garcia for a storm, and Garcia – in the single best moment of the piece – plucks the paper sailboat from his hand, crumples it, and shoves it into her mouth. Instantly, a thunderclap is heard and the stage is transformed to a very believable thunderstorm. Jay Gower Taylor’s set design and Robert Songergaard’s lighting design managed to produce thunder, lightning, wind, and even “rain” – clever gobos and projections.
As Beauchesne commandeers the other characters around the stage, a very dense narrative unfolds. But while such a commitment to sequence and character might prove detrimental in another choreographer’s hands, Pite succeeds by quickly introducing themes of revenge and obsession and then carefully developing them. The narrative becomes trickier to follow, yes, but the audience is instead treated to wonderfully syncopated movement and sublime partnering. It’s a fair trade.
I have only two complaints with this work: first, each of the character’s movement seems too similar. Each phrase is thickly populated, but the dynamic that Ms Pite adopts – an asymmetrical walk, an abundance of attitude-ish barrel turns – at first seems inventive but later repetitive. It becomes difficult to tell the characters apart by their movement alone; much of the movement vocabulary remains the same from character to character, with only their costumes to differentiate them. Audience members seemed to have a hard time keeping track of the male characters, especially: anger, explosive energy, and those beautiful barrel turns permeated every solo.
My second complaint is that some of the visual elements came across as cheesy and unintentionally funny. When Ariel torments the shipwrecked crew, intending to drive them mad, her face is projected on stage in scarily large proportions and accompanied by unnecessarily dramatic voiceovers (“I will drive you MAAAAAAD!”). It is also seemed a bit of a cop-out to forgo movement and just project a video that explained Miranda and Prospero’s habitation on the island – those two characters simply parked themselves in front of the curtain-screen and watched, just like the audience, as the video did what movement could have just as easily conveyed, in a much more interesting way. These moments are exacerbated when one compares them to the beginning visual elements, like the rainstorm and shipwreck, which were so skilfully done.
But I cannot deny that I was pleased with Ms Pite’s famously “dark” modern dance. I think it’s fairly easy to modern dance that deliberately avoids humor to spill into the “this is modern dance and it must therefore be intense and very serious and erudite” category. I enjoyed Ms Pite’s unusual treatment of this art as a dark and somewhat creepy thing – capable of inducing uncertainty and even fear in the hearts of her audience, but also awe and respect for her innovation and the virtuosity of her dancers.