Het Musiktheater, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; June 18, 2014

Maggie Foyer

(l-r) Jozef Varga, Rink Sliphorst, Koen Havenith and Jurgita Dronina in 'The Tempest'.  Photo © Angela Sterling

(l-r) Jozef Varga, Rink Sliphorst, Koen Havenith and Jurgita Dronina in ‘The Tempest’.
Photo © Angela Sterling

In the darkened theatre, the ethereal music of Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in alium” accompanies a video of wavelets breaking on the shore: a combination that transports us far from the reality of everyday existence. Then the old man sitting silently at the base of a blasted tree raises his daf, a flat circular drum, and from this simplest of instruments a torrent of music flows. We are on the island with Ariel and Caliban and looking outwards at the invaders.

For his latest commission, “The Tempest”, Krzysztof Pastor has extracted elements from Shakespeare’s complex last play and woven them into a heady mix of sounds and visuals to create a piece of dance theatre that glows with originality. Pastor, now artistic director of the Polish National Ballet returns to the Dutch National Ballet, the company where he cut his choreographic teeth and where he is still a resident choreographer. The dancers understand his style and gave splendid performances.

Pastor’s masterstroke is his collaboration with Iranian film artist, Shirin Neshat working with partner Shoja Azari, and musician/actor Abbas Bakhtiari; newcomers to dance, who introduce startling fresh perspectives.  The Middle East has for so long been trapped in the dichotomy of demonizing/glamorizing ‘Orientalism’ to use Edward Said’s term, but Neshat is one of a new generation of artists opening doors to alternate interpretations and creating a backdrop that constantly stimulates the imagination. Her ‘other’ world is stripped back to a bare shoreline, to sand dunes with tufts of rough grass and the sea that constantly mutates: tempestuous, calm, inscrutable or enigmatic.

Dramatrurg, Willem Bruls, who previously worked with Pastor on “Romeo and Juliet” (recently seen in London) and his 2009, “Sheherezade”, also draws focus to the colonisation of the island. Caliban is not the misshapen beast that Prospero, the European, must enslave but simply one of the indigenous inhabitants. While Ariel rescues Prospero from the waves, it is Caliban who saves Miranda carrying her tenderly to the shore. The two meet in a state of innocent curiosity and Pastor develops a duet that is playful and inventive. Some of his best choreography is for Caliban danced by Rink Sliphorst, a Dutch dancer who can always be relied on, especially in heavy-duty roles. His Caliban is a son of the soil, his movements unforced and fluid, defining and contrasting with the more formal balletic style of Prospero and Ariel. Jozef Varga as the Young Prospero was on top form, developing from youthful arrogance to achieve wisdom and maturity. He rejects Caliban as a suitable mate for his daughter then gives Ferdinand an equally hard time before he solves the eternal dilemma of fathers – that he will have to release his daughter to the arms of another man in order to keep her. These complex emotions present rich choreographic material and Pastor has developed a character which Varga personifies in a blistering performance that rages through the evening.

The Tempest (07). Jurgita Dronina and Jozef Varga in 'The Tempest'.  Photo © Angela Sterling

Jurgita Dronina and Jozef Varga in ‘The Tempest’.
Photo © Angela Sterling

Jurgita Dronina is a wholly satisfying Miranda. She has the vulnerability of an adolescent couched in technique that has the tensile strength of graphene. In the second series of duets with Ferdinand (Remi Wörtmeier) the intensity grows, building to a final encounter embedded in stormy seas and accompanied by a video of limbs rapturously entwined. For the embodiment of youthful love there are few who can match the ecstatic heights this couple achieve.

Trinculo (Roman Artyushkin) and Stephano (Serguei Endinian) provide the broad and very physical comedy while Ariel (Koen Havernith), a more ephemeral and abstract character has plenty of opportunity to show both fine elevation and fluid movement.

The music, a mix of Renaissance, contemporary and folk was an essential item. Most visible was the extraordinary daf player, Bakhtiari who also played the old Prospero. The instrument demands complete physical involvement and in his hands, it was a theatrical performance in itself.

While the focus is on the lead characters, Pastor dresses the stage with a corps of ‘tempests’ who change the colours of their skirts to set the mood and a cohort of ‘calibans’. At times we also see the world through the eyes of the islanders, whom Nashat films either standing on the beach or in the water, silent and observant in their timeless black robes. It is a dense and absorbing work that runs for 90 minutes but may well have been enhanced by an interval to give time to gather ones senses before the next flood of ideas. It was an exhausting but exhilarating evening.