The spirits are alive in "The Tempest."

The spirits are alive in "The Tempest."

And in director Tony Taccone's production of the play, running through Nov. 2 in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre, those spirits take on a mystical, abstract human form.

"We are these invisible elements that make things happen," says Tim Rubel, one of four professionally trained dancers acting as Prospero's spirits in Shakespeare's last play as a solo writer.

The four dancers are coated in white body paint, sport shaved heads and often move in complete synchronicity as they embody the spirit and the will of Prospero, the Duke of Milan and the play's protagonist, and Ariel, Prospero's spirited slave.

"We're spirits, but we're the physical manifestation of Prospero and Ariel's spells," says Rubel.

The characters never speak, yet are in almost every scene, sometimes popping up as props — from coat carrier to chess table to back rest, gracefully gliding across the stage each time they appear and disappear.

"We add a humanist element to the magic of the play," says dancer David Silpa.

They portray little emotion, though Silpa says he tries to reflect Prospero's emotion in a given scene, gently gritting his teeth when the character is angry, for example.

Silpa, 23, is a recent University of San Francisco graduate who was introduced to the role by the play's associate movement director, Sonya Delwaide, who is also an associate professor in the dance department at nearby Mills College.

With a minor in dance and minimal theater experience, Silpa had never taken on a role of this variety or magnitude.

Mastering the choreography wasn't technically challenging, the dancers say, but being precisely synchronized during some scenes in the play took lots of practice and back and forth with directors.

"We worked a lot on the synchronicity," says Rubel, 36. "It's been a challenge for all of us to remain still."

Rubel and Silpa are joined on stage by dancers Will Cooper and Jordon Waters.

Their choreography is influenced by Butoh Japanese theatrical dance practices, yet none of the dancers had any background in it, Rubel says.

"It's a totally different movement style than what I'm used to doing," says Rubel.

A form of theatrical performance dancing, Butoh first appeared in Japan around 1959, after the end of World War II. Difficult to define, Butoh typically features meticulously controlled, slow movements and physical techniques performed by individuals covered in white body paint.

Using dancers to embody the spirits in the play is an invention of Taccone, yet spirits are present in Shakespeare's original text, often breaking out into long monologues that Rubel and Silpa say would have dragged out scenes too much for most audiences.

In late April, after about 30 runs of the play, the dancers say they have good nights, and those where they feel less in synch in their roles. Being spirits is challenging, as it's hard to read how the audience perceives them.

"It can be really difficult," says Silpa. "But there's such absolution in that final moment when the lights go down."

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at