The Tempest

Choreography by Michael Smuin

Music by Paul Seiko Chihara (after Purcell) -- Costume Design: Willa Kim
Senic Design: Tony Walton -- Lighting Design: Sara Linnie Slocum

"The isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs
that give delight and hurt not."   -- Caliban

Story of the ballet


Prospero, the scholarly and mysterious Duke of Milan, loses his crown to his scheming brother, Antonio. Exiled from their country and cast out to die at sea, Prospero and his daughter Miranda are saved when their ship washes ashore on an enchanted island. With the help of two island inhabitants, the spirit Ariel and the savage Caliban, Prospero soon establishes a new kingdom.

Act 1

Prospero summons his magical powers and enlists the assistance of Ariel to create a storm at sea, promising to grant Ariel freedom for his service. A ship caught in the tempest is driven to the island. On board are Alonzo, the King of Naples; his brother, Sebastian; Alonzo's son, Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples; Gonzalo, a counselor; Trinculo, a jester; Stephano, a drunken servant; and Antonio, Prospero's brother.

During the shipwreck, Ferdinand is separated from his father, Trinculo and Stephano are separated from their lords, and all are cast upon Prospero's shores.

Having returned to the island, Ariel, invisible to all but Prospero, playfully torments Caliban. In a frenzy, Caliban seizes Miranda, who is rescued by her father's magic.

Prospero then arranges the first meeting between Miranda and Ferdinand. The two fall in love, as Prospero intended.

Meanwhile, Caliban encounters Trinculo and Stephano, who ply him with liquor and persuade him to swear allegiance to Stephano.

The shipwrecked lords enter, exhausted. Alonzo and Gonzalo fall asleep and Antonio, his eye on the crown of Naples, tempts Stephano to murder Alonzo. As they draw their weapons to strike, Ariel awakens Gonzalo to thwart the conspiracy.

Prospero keeps careful watch over the young lovers, testing Ferdinand before permitting him to dance with Miranda. As he shadows their movements, Prospero inadvertently drops his magic cape. Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban discover the cape and Caliban urges Stephano to kill Prospero and assume control of the island. But Prospero reclaims his cape, and commands Ariel, the water sprites and wild dogs to pursue the three scheming servants.

Act 2

With his enemies in his power, Prospero sanctions the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand with a magical spectacle, a masque presented by gods and goddesses including Juno, Neptune, Bacchus, Ceres and Iris. At the conclusion of the masque, Ariel leads the ensemble in a joyous finale, after which Miranda and Ferdinand repledge their devotion.

In the spirit of the occasion, Prospero calls for a reconciliation: Antonio returns the crown to Prospero; Prospero restores Ferdinand to his father; Trinculo and Stephano are reunited with their masters; Caliban repents, begging Prospero for forgiveness. As promised, Prospero releases Ariel from his service and the two reluctantly bid farewell.

Notes from the Choreographer

William Shakespeare is continually praised as a great philosopher, psychologist and poet, and the rich fabric of his plays bears this out. He was, first of all, a man of the theatre, always alert to the desires of his audience, constantly seeking new and inventive ways to delight and challenge them. This sense of theatricality is particularly evident in his comedies and romances.

THE TEMPEST, an exquisite romance written in 1611, was Shakespeare's last major work, his genius demonstrated in the play's artful construction. Although the action is simple, it can be interpreted on many different levels. The author filled the script with more elaborate stage directions than he wrote for any other play, indicating that THE TEMPEST was to be filled with music, and the marriage of the two lovers adorned with a formal masque, which must have pleased the audience at Blackfriars.

Despite the simplicity of the plot, the meanings that can be drawn from THE TEMPEST are many, one interpretation not always agreeing with another. The work is filled with the themes of Sin, Atonement, Change, and Reconciliation -- themes appearing again and again, in Shakespeare's last plays. Love, too, is a recurring theme: love at first sight (Ferdinand and Miranda) father-son love (Alonzo and Ferdinand), and abstract, spiritual love (Prospero and Ariel). THE TEMPEST comments on the conflict between nobility and their servants, a note of social awareness not lost on Shakespeare's audience. I find the most fascinating theme is that of illusion and reality, and it is this theme that lends itself best to expression in this medium of ballet.

Shakespeare set the mythical island of Prospero in the Mediterranean; however, the inspiration for the story came from the Bermudas. His imagination was captivated by the tale of a flagship, the Sea Venture, which met a tornado and miraculously wrecked without the loss of a single life.

Other stories from the New World influenced Shakespeare in the creation of THE TEMPEST, especially the accounts of the American Indian that came back from across the Atlantic. From these sprang the character of Caliban, the primitive slave. For me, Caliban is the most original of THE TEMPEST characters, a remarkable outgrowth of the author's reading and reflection. Paradoxically, some of the most beautifully poetry comes from the mouth of this "noble savage." Other images raised by Caliban strike us a particularly modern, nearly four centuries later. When Trinculo and Stephano get Caliban drunk, contemporary audiences may recognize the fire-water that would prove to be the ruin of the American Indian. In Calbian's attempt on his master's life, we see the revolt of the oppressed.

Magic was very much in the air at the time THE TEMPEST was written, with King James I, an authority on demonology, on the English throne. Both Shakespeare and his public were steeped in matters supernatural, with frame of reference that ranged from witchcraft to the capabilities of Greek gods and goddesses.

Prospero, then, is a properly mysterious character; a Magus. Scholars have contended that the part of Prospero is autobiographical, and support for this is found in many of Prospero's words. Particularly intriguing is the parallel that can be drawn between Prospero's magical abilities and Shakespeare's own power to create a world of imagination. As a wizard, however, Prospero has a curiously human side; his power depends on his books. Indeed, Caliban tells Trinculo and Stephano:

First, to possess his books; for without them
He's but a sot as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command...
Burn but his books.

In Prospero's speech at the end of THE TEMPEST, he vows to "cast away his books and make magic no more." Perhaps here Shakespeare forecasts the end of his own art, the magical poetry he once created. Whatever the conclusions, THE TEMPEST is a masterful farewell to the stage…

Michael Smuin

The Tempest - photos
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