On Friday, American Ballet Theatre gave us two Shakespearean reveries, José Limón’s Moor’s Pavane and Alexei Ratmansky’s new Tempest, and the contrast served neither well. Limón’s tightly structured, minimalist meditation on the theme of jealousy in Othello was partly overshadowed by the glittering spectacle of The Tempest. Ratmansky’s ambitious and untidy première, on the other hand, felt like a work-in-progress, with dazzling and inventive moments alternating with placeholder choreography, nearly undone at times by the flimsy non-score by Sibelius. The stilted program notes read like a synopsis written by a 12-year-old, prefaced by a puzzling disclaimer that suggests that the synopsis is to be ignored.

Tempest (Dancers: Marcelo Gomes and Daniil Simkin) © Marty Sohl
Tempest (Dancers: Marcelo Gomes and Daniil Simkin)
© Marty Sohl

The evening opened with Stanton Welch’s ebullient Clear, free of narrative and free of any deep or interesting thought. Set to two of Bach’s all-time greatest hits, the ballet oscillates between two modes: joyfully perky and romantically moody. A luscious, bare-midriffed Paloma Herrera provides the romantic interest, drifting on stage at moments when the sight of seven buff, bare-chested men leaping and spinning and wiggling their heads starts to get monotonous. The men of ABT, manfully captained by Sascha Radetsky, are never less than stunning in Welch’s freewheeling ballet-with-a-contemporary-vibe; Herrera and Thomas Forster dispense poetry in motion. My one-line note on this piece, handwritten in the dark, reads: “Are they meant to be birds?”

In Moor’s Pavane, every step, every gesture, every look – and there aren’t very many – is fraught with meaning. Limón brought his four characters to life and engineered the destruction of Desdemona with a bare-bones modern dance tool kit and the frame of a Renaissance dance. Lush, swirling robes in deep tones of red for the noble Othello and seductive Emilia, filmy white for the doomed Desdemona, and the muted gold tunic and tights for the treacherous Iago, read dramatically in the claustrophobic circle of light in which the deadly pavane unfolds. Roman Zhurbin thunders in the role of Othello, undone by jealousy and mistrust. An entire ballet could be choreographed for Veronika Part’s bare neck and shoulders. The ethereal Hee Seo barely registers in the role of Desdemona. Cory Stearns, cast against type as the wicked Iago, is a revelation: the embodiment of sleaze, as he wraps one leg in an erotic attitude devant around Zhurbin’s hips.

Ratmansky’s characterisations are no less dramatic in Tempest, and are brilliantly realized by the entire cast, with strong assist from Santo Loquasto's ingenious costuming. The shimmering Mohawk-style headpieces for Ariel and the Storm Spirits, made of simple plastic cable ties in neon colors, are particularly arresting. The doe-eyed Sarah Lane captured the audience’s hearts with her graceful Miranda – innocent of the dark arts as practiced by her father, but also impervious to them, and therefore not entirely within her father’s control. Lane was well paired with Joseph Gorak, latest young heartthrob of the ballet world, as Ferdinand. An airborne Daniil Simkin and a prowling Herman Cornejo embodied Ariel and Caliban – the two warring sides of Prospero’s psyche – with a fevered intelligence. (Though I felt the white Kabuki face for Ariel, and the enormous bushy headdress and face paint for Caliban impaired the actors’ ability to communicate emotion.)

The unfunny vaudeville shtick for Caliban and the two drunks, portrayed by Craig Salstein and Julio Bragado-Young, two highly accomplished comedic actors, needs an overhaul to make more sense of Caliban’s place in the universe, and to set the stage for the final scene. At the end of the ballet, as the ship sails with Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand et al bound for civilization, Caliban tries, with his limited intellect, to come to terms with his lonely destiny; he struggles to read Prospero’s book on the magic arts but, frustrated, tears up its pages. A heartrending conclusion that confirms Caliban – more flawed human than beast – as the true heart of Ratmansky’s Tempest.

Marcelo Gomes gives a commanding performance as the conflicted Prospero – said to be a stand-in for Shakespeare at a time when he was contemplating the end of his career – noble, wise and self-sacrificing, yet prey to rage, self-doubt, and a propensity to abuse his power. Among passages where the choreography seems to be a mere sketch, still to be embellished, is the pivotal scene in which Prospero confronts then forgives his brother, Antonio (played by Sascha Radetsky), and his accomplices, for stripping him of his dukedom. Gomes gives Radetsky a hard stare, then extends a hand. Surely the moment calls for more than this.

Similarly, the ensemble scenes, particularly those in which Prospero conjures up the Storm Spirits to create mayhem of some kind, are a lot of busy rushing around and pushing clunky set pieces to and fro. Ratmansky’s inventiveness has so far not failed him in story ballet after story ballet, so he may well continue to polish The Tempest in the run-up to its presentation by ABT’s co-producing partner, the National Ballet of Canada.

Success, however, is predicated on beefing up the skeletal score by Sibelius, which we are told was written only as incidental music for the play. Sibelius’ conjuring of natural phenomena like storms, while atmospheric, is too frail to support a ballet. Ratmansky’s robust choreographic imagination calls out for symphonic music, or tone poems, or the pulsating electronic fabrications of Max Richter or Ólafur Arnalds, darlings of so many contemporary choreographers.