David Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 30, November 2, 2013

Jerry Hochman

Based on pre-season hype, the most eagerly awaited ballet scheduled during American Ballet Theatre’s Fall 2013 season at the David H. Koch Theater was Artist In Residence Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Tempest.”

My initial take on Mr. Ratmansky’s new production, which had its world premiere at ABT’s gala opening night celebration on October 30, was that parts of it are good, even brilliant, but they come in bits and pieces and don’t sustain the piece as a whole. A second viewing on November 2 has not changed my opinion. Although “The Tempest” should be seen for the performances of Mr. Gomes, Sarah Lane, Daniil Simkin, and Herman Cornejo, overall it’s somewhat disappointing.

The piece is choreographed to Jean Sibelius’s “The Tempest (Incidental Music), Op. 109,” and therein lies much of the problem. The quality of Sibelius’s composition is not the issue – to me, the music is a combination of program music and tone poems that captures the essence of the play perfectly. But necessarily the incidental music tells the story in the form of highlights – incidents and moods – condensed from a larger whole. But when applied choreographically, the result is an incidental visual version of the larger story. Indeed, the program notes begin with this concession: “The ballet is at once a fragmented narrative as well as a meditation on some of the themes of Shakespeare’s play.” That it is. But although a series of vignettes can tell the story succinctly and perhaps sufficiently, a broader brush is needed to tell the story well.

The ballet begins with Prospero, a master of occult arts, conjuring a storm that causes his brother Antonio, the usurper of his title, Antonio’s co-conspirators, including Alonso, the King of Naples, Alonso’s son Ferdinand, and various hangers-on, to be shipwrecked on a dreary island in the middle of nowhere – the same island on which Prospero and his three year old daughter Miranda had landed twelve years earlier after being put to sea by the usurpers, presumably to drown. Prospero enlists the aid of one of two ‘servants’ that he has recruited from the island – Ariel, an airy spirit who longs for freedom (the other being Caliban, the deformed offspring of a witch) – to help him carry out his plan to separate the conspirators, make the son of one of the usurpers and his daughter fall in love, and ultimately regain his title as Duke of Milan and unite the dukedom’s dueling parties. In the process, Caliban assaults Miranda, gets drunk with a couple of clownish servants, and Prospero and his minions summon more storms. Ultimately, Prospero’s wizardry is fulfilled, Ariel is given his freedom, and all parties except Caliban leave the island to return to Milan.

The entire piece runs approximately 45 minutes, and looks as compressed and runny as the above description.

But that’s not to say that much of what’s there isn’t first rate. The dances for Miranda (Ms. Lane) and Prospero (Mr. Gomes), which show her love and respect for her father and his protective love for his daughter, illustrate reverential love in a nutshell. The two duets with Ferdinand are distinctively different from that – and different from each other. The first, displaying ‘instant’ love, looks just like that: playful and effervescent youthful love in a nutshell. The second, when it’s clear that the two will be married, portrays ‘youthful joy’ in a nutshell. For example, in one simple step Mr. Ratmansky says everything about how Miranda feels when she learns she and Ferdinand will marry: In the course of executing a combination of steps as she happily glides across the stage, Ms. Lane suddenly punctuates the phrase by tapping one foot gently but deliberately onto the stage floor. It’s a brief exclamation (repeated shortly thereafter) that clearly transmits her happiness in a childlike way. It’s a perfect step in its context, and one that is very different from choreographic expressions of ‘passionate joy’ in which the ballerina typically soars upward.

It’s a rare talent that can pare complex emotions to their core and express them choreographically, as Mr. Ratmansky does. But just because they can be shown succinctly, in a nutshell, doesn’t mean that they should be. These dances are all too brief and segue into the next vignette too quickly. They should have had more time to breathe, but the score doesn’t permit it.

A somewhat different problem arises with the choreography for Ariel, which is airy and bubbly and full of jumps and turns and more jumps and more turns, and Mr. Simkin had a field day with it (portraying a miniature white tornado of a sprite with flaming orange spiked hair is right up his alley). And later in the piece, when Ariel is carrying out one of Prospero’s directives, the sight of Mr. Simkin costumed like a fearsome goddess (a ‘harpy’) with pronounced naked breasts, bathed in red light and flapping his oversized cape/wings to scare the conspirators – sort of a cross between Xena and a Great Leonopteryx (respectively, the ‘warrior princess’ from the television series and the venerated ‘big red bird’ from “Avatar”) – is unintentionally hilarious, but unforgettable. Mr. Simkin brought Ariel to life, but the excitement left the stage whenever he did.

The remainder of the piece is lackluster. As Caliban, Mr. Cornejo executed Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography with just enough character to appear both savage and sympathetic. But too much of the movement quality looked like it had been borrowed from the choreography for the Fakir in “La Bayadere.” Worse was the brief reference to Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda (much too insignificantly portrayed), and the scene where he gets drunk with two of Alonzo’s servants (unimaginative, and, as staged, a comic interlude before the main action resumes). These scenes should provide essential insights into Caliban as savage cannibal, and Caliban as victim. Treating them lightly avoids displeasing viewers, but also misleads them into concluding that Caliban’s remaining on the island represents some sort of cruel abandonment.

Further, Mr. Ratmansky’s treatment of secondary characters is, at best, superficial. Alonso, Antonio, and the others are there because they’re in the play, but they are relatively empty vessels. And the use of dancers clad in blue, with spiked blue hair (for the women) and blue mohawks (for the men), as both island spirits and representative of the force of the tempests, collectively called “Chorus,” just looked silly. Finally, the overall sense of darkness that permeates the piece (sets and costumes by the estimable Santo Loquasto) dampened whatever enthusiasm might have existed for what little choreography there was to be excited about. Indeed, there was more excitement generated on the ‘grand promenade’ by the sound and light show for the ersatz ‘tempest’ that was the theme of ABT’s post-performance gala dinner than there was on stage.

Mr. Gomes, who looked part Robinson Crusoe and part Neptune, was a wondrously powerful Prospero. But except for his delightful duets with Ms. Lane (whom he partnered as if she were weightless) and several Hamlet-esque soliloquys, he didn’t have much dancing to do. Mr. Gorak didn’t have much acting to do, but he was a competent partner, and he and Ms. Lane looked good together. Ms. Lane was a perfect Miranda: as staged, she was moonlight on a dark and stormy night. Her role could have been cardboard: the sweetly innocent and obedient daughter who falls for the first boy she’s seen since she was three. But her acting made Miranda believable, and illustrates how important it is to cast a ballerina in a ‘story ballet’ who not only can dance a role flawlessly, but who can believably act it and look it.

“The Tempest” will continue this coming week with a different cast, and is scheduled to be included in ABT’s 2014 Met season.