Great art is ambitious. It is imaginative, energetic, and bold. Most of all it has an undaunted connection to the masters of the past while also looking to build upon the foundations of genius. That Ballet Cymru, under the directorship of Darius James, has tried to offer original choreography to Sibelius’ late masterwork, the Tempest Incidental Music, is worthy of note in itself. That it is largely successful in its ambition is worthy of praise of another kind: that afforded to those who command our respect often for the sheer mountain they are attempting to climb. What Ballet Cymru has managed to do with this production is not to seem at all daunted by the work of two of European art’s towering geniuses. And that is triumph all of its own.
That is not to say it is a work of genius or even without flaws, but Ballet Cymru has yet again shown it is a company that refuses to be restricted by its shortcomings in both budget and talent.
The success of this production comes from a sturdy foundation of interpretation. The company has understood the source material of both Shakespeare and Sibelius extremely well. It is funny, profound, exciting, and deeply moving at times in a way that perhaps yet another delivery of Shakespeare’s lines would not be. If Sibelius’ majestic interpretations of the themes of The Tempest were the definitive concentration of emotion into sound then its evolution into ballet is that thing again into movement. And here there were moments when the ingenuity of the human form threatened to transcend the things that can come forth from it – i.e. both words and music.
The dancers on display here ranged from competent to genuinely exciting. Daisuke Miura’s Caliban is snake-like, worming his way around the stage, fluidly folding and unfurling, his limbs interchangeable, something immediately human and un-human about him all at once. Emily Pimm Edwards as Miranda, although lacking in tangible stage-presence for most of the performance, gives the most moving and emotive dance of the night at the finale with Daniel Morrison’s otherwise wooden and clumping Ferdinand. Paired with one of Sibelius’ most soaring musical dissections of the golden moment of new love, it was a euphoric celebration of heart-swelling vivacity and naïve joy. Miranda seemed to grow as the music grew, she filled with pure air, became a true, organic companion to the magical island.
Sam Bishop’s Prospero was less commanding – as, disappointingly, were all of the ballerinos in this performance. He was large, pristine, but too often brought to mind the chiselled theatrics of David Copperfield and he released Ariel from her spell as if disappearing a jumbo jet. All of the dancing that could have been achieved with his staff was foregone for mere gaudy presentation and sabre-swishing. An opportunity missed that can be forgiven in other areas, but it beats like a thumped appendage in the centre of the play on this occasion.
The highlight of the production, and, indeed, of the company it seems, is the mesmeric presence of Lydia Arnoux as the sprite Ariel. Arnoux is closer to Tinkerbell or Puck than the ethereal majesty of recent productions of the play that I have seen where Ariel is often adorned with grandiosely angelic symbolism. Arnoux’s Ariel is light and quick, ageless and gently powerful. Here three dances incorporating her release from Prospero’s spell and her elated celebration are the only things to top Miranda and Ferdinand’s pas de deux that directly precedes it.
Ballet Cymru is a company with a mischievous sense of humour (as previous productions have shown) and some of the most pleasing passages were given over to Miura’s cantankerous Caliban, Nicolas Capelle’s drunken Stephano and Aimee Williamson’s brilliant turn as the jester Trunculo. Delightful farce was never far when these three were on stage. In other moments, synchronicity, more in danger of failing when inches apart than when yards apart, showed frustrating sings of rustiness. Also it was noticeable that the moments of beauty were undermined slightly by the shaky aplomb of some of the supportive performances, and the difficulty some of the male dancers seemed to have with some of the more delicate demands of the music.
But, on the whole, the failings of this production (which were largely technical and matters for dancers who are works in progress) were blinded by the light of the successes. Trembling support and slightly leaden turns in moments of finesse were completely forgotten amidst the sheer beauty of Emily Pimm Edwards’ heart-swelling climactic dance as Miranda, and Lydia Arnoux’s wonderful performance as Ariel.