In the six years of its existence, International Dance Festival Birmingham has transformed the city's performance scene, attracting a diverse cast of world-class artists and companies to its venues. This year IDFB pulled off a major coup in securing the participation of Kidd Pivot, the company formed in 2002 by the Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. So it's a pity that the Hippodrome was half-empty for The Tempest Replica, because no one makes the case for contemporary dance with more eloquence, subtlety and beauty than Pite.
Her adaptation of Shakespeare's play is mesmerising. The piece opens with Prospero (Eric Beauchesne) crouching on stage, making little boats from folded paper. When he has a flotilla he calls for Ariel (Sandra Marin Garcia) and commissions a shipwreck; Ariel promptly puts one of the boats in her mouth and munches it up. Crash-zoom into a wild storm, billowing waves, desperate figures on a rain-lashed ship. But the figures are not quite human. They're white, with long insectoid heads and oddly articulating bodies. It's as if, like Prospero's boats, they're made of folded paper. The sheet on to which the storm has been projected, as if in a makeshift cinema, then falls to the ground, revealing a set like the frontispiece of a book, on which we read the word ISLAND. Here we and the shipwrecked party encounter Miranda (Cindy Salgado), a white paper-fold figure in skirt and heels, and a snarling origami Caliban with stunted wings (Bryan Arias).
If it's oversimplistic to conflate the character of Prospero with that of Shakespeare himself, there are tempting parallels. The Tempest was Shakespeare's last play; it ends with Prospero setting aside his supernatural powers ("Our revels now are ended. . ."). Prospero's magical domain is the island, Shakespeare's that of the stage and the imagination. So there's a satisfying logic in the occupants of "the insubstantial realm" being physically constituted from the pages on which they're written.
What makes Pite special is that this conceptual deftness is balanced by the exhilarating kick of her dance-making. Her paper-maquette characters twitch into rippling, boneless life as if impelled by forces outside themselves. Owen Belton's score is all whispery suggestion, echoing the island's "thousand twangling instruments" and colouring Ariel's delicate mannequin strut, Caliban's anguished lumbering and Ferdinand (Yannick Matthon) and Miranda's dreamy mutual entanglings. Pite has a jackdaw eye for movement, and in the course of the piece we get snatches of popping and locking, kung fu and Marvel Comics heroics. A virtuoso sequence in which Ferdinand is repeatedly pitched into the air in slow motion is pure anime; the "men of sin" tableau with Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian could have been inspired by the Hellraiser films.
Halfway through, Pite throws a switch. The paper characters are unmasked and clothed in contemporary dress, and the step-by-step exposition is replaced by pure dance. This, in a sense, is a test of Pite's process, and it reveals new things about the characters' emotional circuitry, in particular the antagonistic cross-currents between Prospero, Ariel and Caliban. While Arias is all sullen antagonism, the svelte Garcia writhes in Beauchesne's grasp like a trapped dragonfly, her long limbs probing the air. In freeing them from their servitude, Prospero frees himself, but all freedom comes at a cost. The final tableau shows Prospero face down on the stage, seemingly lifeless, as four cast members silently applaud him. The audience's reaction is much noisier. Luke Jennings
Cindy Salgado and Eric Beauchesne in Crystal Pite's 'mesmerising'
The Tempest Replica. Tristram Kenton