Crystal Pite’s The Tempest Replica puts a unique spin on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Choreographed in collaboration with the seven dancers who make up Kidd Pivot, The Tempest Replica presents two different constructions of the play side by side. Pite establishes two distinct versions of the same thing in order to explore the underlying themes and emotional contents of The Tempest, without creating an entirely narrative work. Presented at Sadler’s Wells, where Pite has recently become the 16th Associate Artist, The Tempest Replica gives us an old school story in a brilliant new way.

The Tempest Replica is a piece of two halves. At first it’s a narrative piece focused entirely on the plot structure of The Tempest, the shells of Shakespeare’s characters like blank canvases.The first half deals skips through scene after scene delivering the essential plot points in a clinical way, the characters blank and undeveloped. It’s a quick-paced, stripped back version of Shakespeare’s last play with a highly controlled, limited movement vocabulary. In contrast, the second half is full of intense feeling as the emotionally deep and physically rich versions of the same characters emerge to explore the complex relationships between them.

The characters are seen in two different forms, each dancer taking on two polar versions of their roles. The replicas, dressed entirely in white with paper-like masks covering their faces are like stick-men, occupying space and time in lieu of the fully fleshed out characters coming later, and they move like they’ve been lifted from a comic book, frame by frame. Each one has a distinct set of stock moves, but they are united in their jolty, stilted, almost robotic movements. Ariel in particular stands out as decidedly strange and non-human, rolling through her hips and torso in isolation, stretching her long legs and walking on the balls of her feet in a peculiar lollop. Pite uses the replicas to storyboard the plot, framing each scene with its title and a subheading explaining the action before it’s happened.

The only character without a replica is Prospero (Eric Beauchesne), and the blankness of the other characters’ replicas allows Pite to play with the idea of Prospero as the puppeteer controlling the events that unfold and putting on a show. He sits on stage before the curtain rises, folding origami boats. The tempest ensues following his instructions to the spirit Ariel (Sandra Marín Garcia), who crams one paper boat into her mouth whole just as the storm strikes. His treatment of Ferdinand, the prince whom he sets to work shifting rocks, is that much more pertinent when the rock he moves so laboriously simply slides back across the stage to resume its previous position. Prospero is pulling the strings.

In an early scene we see Prospero manipulate his daughter Miranda (Cindy Salgado), dragging her across the floor, pulling and pushing her through a series of stilted movements, knocking the backs of her knees to teach her to walk. Later, she moves freely through the same solo, much smoother this time, but steeped in emotion; she is devastated at the sight of the shipwreck and urges her father to save the drowning men.

The fuller characters are perhaps less intriguing in terms of movement language – their movements are expansive and beautiful but don’t always seem specific to the individual character – but the exploration of the relationships between them brings out raw emotion that was entirely absent in the replicas. A touching duet between Ferdinand (Peter Chu) and Miranda gets to the core of their love for one another – they’re overjoyed, and end up dancing snippets of the Charleston. The relationship between Ariel and Prospero appears darker and more twisted than I had imagined it could be – the psychological impact of Ariel’s desperation to be freed as she battles against his dependence on her and reluctance to let her go, creates an aggressive tension between them that makes them appear like lovers, locked in an interminable feud.

The sound design was stunning. The combination of original compositions by Owen Belton and perfectly timed sound effects by Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe gave some replicas an eerie superhuman quality and enhanced the emotional range of the characters. The set was minimal, quite aptly giving the imagination free reign much of the time, but the effect was spoiled somewhat by slightly cheesy projected animations, which simply did not gel with the neutrality and earthiness of much of the piece itself.

You don’t have to have The Tempest in your back pocket to understand The Tempest Replica, but it certainly enriches the experience to know what’s going on. Pite has given us the gift of an old story in a unique re-telling, breaking new ground for contemporary dance.