Press: In Ballet’s new ‘Tempest,’ Prospero’s dance is magic and the island integrates step

By Eli Keel for Insider Louisville

July 31, 2018

For the third year in a row, Louisville Ballet dancer and choreographer Roger Creel has created an original Shakespearean ballet to close out Kentucky Shakespeare’s summer season in Central Park.

This year, he tackles “The Tempest” with the help of returning composer Scott Moore and a few other surprise guests. “The Tempest” tells the story of a magician, Prospero, stranded on a magic island, waited upon by spirits and monsters. The action begins when a ship crashes on the island.

Creel spoke with Insider about making the action of the ballet tell a story as clearly as the words of the play, working with dance steps from outside his normal discipline, and how he found the perfect Prospero.

In “The Tempest,” Prospero is struggling with a choice — should he give up his magic powers?

“Magic is the connection that a performer has to their audience, their circle of magic,” said Creel. “Giving up magic means giving up your power over people. That happens when you’re a dancer by force, as you age. You lose your magical skills to control your body in space.”

Dancers moving from one stage of their career to the next is a subject Insider has explored before, including Louisville Ballet’s Artistic and Executive Director Robert Curran’s own thoughts. Curran was a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet before he stepped down and made his way to Louisville.

And that’s exactly why Creel cast Curran as Prospero.

“For dancers, the end comes way before the end of life,” explained Creel. “The beauty of ‘The Tempest,’ with Robert as the lead, is that Robert made the choice to leave behind his magic at the Australian Ballet, long before he needed to. He was at the height of his powers.”

The timing of Curran’s retirement means he still has chops that some heads of ballet companies have lost to aging.

“What principal artists do as they age is take on character roles. But Robert does it at the marvelous place where he can still dance and lift and move and jump, but then has character training sunk into his bones … There’s some poetry to that,” said Creel.

Prospero is just one of the magical characters in “The Tempest.” There are many spirits and sprites like Ariel, who serves Prospero and longs for freedom, and the monster Caliban.

For the “magic” of these characters, Creel didn’t want to be limited by the vocabulary of ballet.

“And it happened that in November, I was asked, out of the blue, to judge a step competition, a University of Louisville Sorority Step Competition. And I thought, wait a minute, Louisville has way more people performing step than it has ballet dancers. It’s a vibrant community,” he said.

Creel reached out to Chris Malone, a coach at Western Middle School whose team has been the National Step Champions twice. Four of Malone’s students were cast in “The Tempest.”

Step is a dance form that has a strong rhythmic element, including stomping, clapping and slapping. The virtuosity of the performers is showcased less by jumps, turns and lifts, and more by the complicated rhythms, full of syncopation and back beats, rhythms that often escape anyone who hasn’t put in serious practice time.

Additionally, step allowed Creel to play more actively with the soundscape of his “Tempest,” including the titular storm.

Malone’s students were joined by five students from the ballet, and Creel worked to develop a blended vocabulary of movement.

“The ballet dancers are learning step, the steppers are learning my blend of contemporary and ballet. And then I asked Robert to learn step a little bit — which sent him outside of his comfort zone,” added Creel.

Integrating all these ideas of form, theme and content would be a task in and of itself, and on top of those concerns, Creel also has to translate a complicated plot into something simple enough to be expressed with movement.

Just like last year’s “Lady Lear,” that means some characters had to be left on the cutting room floor. (Sorry Sycorax.) Shakespeare purists may take issue, but the rest of us can enjoy it.

“The Tempest” lets Creel do what he does best — juggle complex layers of thought, plot, ideas and themes, all while pulling the audience into the action with exhilarating movement.

Catch “The Tempest” starting Wednesday, Aug. 1, at the amphitheater in Central Park, 1340 S. Fourth St. It continues through Sunday, Aug. 5, and the free shows start at 8 p.m.