Ariel flits across the stage on wires like Peter Pan. Caliban is tall, solid, and gross. Prospero shows his magical domination by becoming 12 feet tall - and Shakespeare's ''The Tempest'' is condensed into a 35-minute ballet by that most magical name in ballet today, Rudolph Nureyev.
The ballet, together with Handel's opera ''Semele,'' has been commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Opera House this month in London's Covent Garden. It is Nureyev's first original creation for the Royal Ballet Company, although he has had a long association with it. His production is now stirring up a tempest of its own.
''No one has yet been able to do anything with 'The Tempest,' '' a man in a pin-striped suit said as he stopped to buy chocolates in the interval after the ballet. ''They are only clapping in there because it is Nureyev. . . . But he's certainly no choreographer.'' The salesgirl nodded in agreement. Others' moods varied as the audience came out and seemed to have a hard time in making up its mind.
I liked it. The ballet had all the drama, action, and male bravado associated with Soviet ballet. As with his version of ''Romeo and Juliet,'' Nureyev has obviously delved deeply and authoritatively into his subject.
The leading role of Prospero was created for principal Royal Ballet dancer Anthony Dowell, but is shared at present by Nureyev himself, who brings qualities of strength, inner power, and great control.
The music is by Tchaikovsky. Nureyev combines excerpts from Suites 2 and 3 with the fantasy overture entitled ''The Tempest.''
In a bow to tradition, he has inserted as a prologue Prospero's history to help explain the story.
The ballet begins amid dramatic black and gold settings, with Milanese courtiers dancing with pomp and ceremony to a polonaise. Nightmarish visions with masked faces plot against Prospero, the Duke of Milan. He is stripped of his rights. Flecked circular curtains at the back of the stage fall dramatically to crashing music as the stage goes dark and stark and he is banished to his island.
It was a surprise to see Nureyev's idea of Ariel and Caliban, danced by Wayne Eagling and David Wall, respectively. They first appear from beneath Prospero's huge cloak and seem to be part of him, as though he is gazing into himself. The three are equal in height and wear the same strange costume (reminding me of the open strip paper lanterns that nursery school children proudly bring home early in their schooling).
They roll about the floor jumbled together in incredible poses. But it is Ariel's aerobatics and a splendidly vivid tempest scene that evoke all the excitement that stage magic can bring and which one sees so little of these days. The choreography combines the various styles of technique Nureyev has been associated with. Even though it is more than 20 years since he left the Soviet Union, he flavors the ballet with moments that are pure Russian classics.
At other times it is the Soviet style that emphasizes male dancing with nonstop movement, similar to the kind to be found in the ballet ''Macbeth'' (Shakespeare again) by Nureyev's Russian contemporary, Vasiliyev, currently at the Bolshoi in Moscow. Prospero's powerful presence is emphasized by this dramatic, dignified, and extremely expressive choreography. Although it's patterned on Dowell's immaculate and swift technique, Nureyev puts his own stamp on the role by blurring the audience's view of his now not-so-neat steps with sheer daredevil domination. It's a good part for him, and much like his real life. As soon as Prospero finds his magical monsters getting too much for him, he appears on stilts (their posts hidden by his cloak) and towers above them, sending them scuttling away.
Thus he becomes the central figure again - and so it is with his dancing these days. He never stops, and just when one starts to think that perhaps he should start slowing down and concentrating on technique, he performs something that makes him the fable he is.
The differing techniques of the many characters - from Amanda (played charmingly by Dresden-shepherdess-like Lesley Collier) to the earthy Caliban (at times treated like the family pet) - show Nureyev's virtuosity and sensitivity to this fairly new field of choreography. (He has produced ''Tancredi,'' ''Romeo and Juliet,'' and ''Manfred'' in recent years).
It is hard to imagine a time when Rudolph Nureyev will not be performing regularly on stage, but ''The Tempest'' shows he has another artistic career in the wings.