The Tempest a Miss for Houston Ballet

Derek Dunn and Artists of Houston Ballet create quite a scare in Act II of The Tempest.
Derek Dunn and Artists of Houston Ballet create quite a scare in Act II of The Tempest. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

A man long ago exiled on a deserted island with his young daughter finally has a chance to seek revenge on the men who wronged him. What will he do? Unfortunately, for Houston Ballet’s co-production of The Tempest with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the question really is, why should the audience care?

David Bintley’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old stage play, generally regarded as the Bard’s last, is as faithful as it is ambitious when it comes to the source material. But The Tempest doesn’t benefit from the cultural shorthand other Shakespearean works do, so exposition (and miming) takes up almost all of the first act, introducing the characters, subplots and themes at the expense of, well, dance.

When the ballet begins, Prospero, the former duke of Milan, has been on the island 12 years, ever since his brother, Antonio, with the help of Alonso, the King of Naples, and Alonso’s brother Sebastian, cast him and his daughter Miranda away in order to become duke himself. Since washing ashore on the island, Prospero has honed his magical abilities, intent on seeking vengeance. The spirit Ariel, who is responsible for the titular tempest, brings the men to the island for Prospero, along with Alonso’s son Ferdinand, court jester Trinculo and butler Stephano.

This, unfortunately, the beginning, is where the plots start getting unwieldy. While many of the miming sequences do establish story and character well – Prospero literally puppeteering Ferdinand off the stage after their first meeting, as if he were a marionette, is a clever, fun way to show that Prospero is pulling the strings on the island – crucial character motivation remains unclear, as do the subplots. To quote the woman sitting behind me, as the curtain closed on Act I, “I was confused.”

click to enlarge
Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh as Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar
The most easily understood story line is the budding relationship between Prospero’s daughter Miranda and Ferdinand. Karina Gonzalez captures the wide-eyed youth of 15-year-old Miranda, and her chemistry with Connor Walsh’s Ferdinand is charming, particularly in their first meeting, her tentative interest, set to plucking strings, her skittishness giving way to a playful and then sweet pas de deux.

Overall, however, Bintley’s choreography doesn’t exactly attempt to reinvent the wheel, and neither does composer Sally Beamish's music. Though it’s clear Bintley had lofty goals in mind approaching the story, the same can’t be said for the choreography, which at best is serviceable, and generally uninspired. It’s especially noticeable at the end of the first act, in the second pas de deux (of three total) for Gonzalez and Walsh. While their performances elevate the dance, successfully conveying longing and romance, the dance itself is fairly similar to the first, and even more similar to the third, sending the audience to intermission with no momentum whatsoever. It’s a shame, too, because Act II delivers on the dancing.

The Tempest is most successful when it’s pure spectacle, free from the weight of Shakespeare's convoluted plotting, and the masque provides the perfect space for spectacle. It’s also a perfect space for the corps de ballet, Chun Wai Chan (Neptune) and Jessica Collado (Ceres) to shine – Chan with a strong, dizzying trip around the stage and Collado with some seemingly effortless pointe work.
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Artists of Houston Ballet performing in the masque of Act II.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar
The true home run of this production is the costume and scenic design by Rae Smith, complimented brilliantly by lighting designer Bruno Poet. From the shimmery golden hulled ship lost in a sea of blue that greets the audience as they enter the theater, to the billowing sheets that simulate crashing waves during the chaotic tempest, to the still-unspoiled set pieces of Act II (see them for yourself), Smith provides something compelling to look at all through the performance. (That said, the Sea Nymphs resemble Vegas showgirls and the doll in Act II resides creepily in the uncanny valley, but these can be forgiven. Along with the garish peacock a certain character was riding that came in for a hard landing, and, yes, you read that right.)

The performances across the board were strong, but marred by the same problem. Ian Casady plays the stately Prospero with an intense focus and determination, but the whats and whys behind him stay hidden too long. Oliver Halkowich (Trinculo) and William Newton (Stephano) are excellent comic relief, the “drunkard dance” too funny, but once the giggling subsides, you’re left wondering, what are they doing again? It’s even difficult to understand why Brian Waldrep’s Caliban, whose wild physicality and animal-like gait are a marvel, is hanging around those fools. Derek Dunn is a revelation as Ariel, and emerges mostly unscathed.

The Tempest isn't nearly as effective as David Bintley probably hopes, with the decision to stick so close to the play the one that hurts it the most. But it is a handsome show, one that won't leave audiences bored, though they may leave wondering what exactly the point is.

Performances are scheduled through June 4 at 7:30 p.m. May 27 and June 2-3, 2 p.m. May 28 and June 3-4 at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For information call 713-227-2787 or visit $25-$195.

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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.