The English ballet tradition has produced great choreographic storytellers. Think Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko. Down the line, Christopher Wheeldon will be added to this august list. At this point in time, he is caught between ballet convention and original thought. Choreographic aspects of The Winter’s tale are routine, while other segments jump off the stage with innovative bravura.
The Winter’s Tale is Wheeldon’s second full-length story ballet, following hard on the heels of the very successful Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011). In fact, the majority of Winter’s Tale creative team also worked on Alice, which ensures that this new ballet’s production and theatrical elements are top of the line.
In the Shakespeare cannon, The Winter’s Tale is listed among the so-called late romance plays, along with Cymbeline and Pericles. The common characteristic is that these plays seem headed for tragic or melancholy endings but are rendered some-what happy by the intercession of the deus ex machina (god from the machine), the divine element that puts things to right (sort of). In The Winter’s Tale, the statue of the dead Hermione, a victim of her husband Leontes’ jealousy, is brought to life. Because the statue plays such a prominent part in the ending, designer Bob Crowley has cleverly used this statue idea for the centre point of his set. The stage is dominated by giant rolling statues of lovers in various poses. These, in turn, are used as focal points for Wheeldon’s choreography.
Full disclosure. When I first heard that Wheeldon was creating a ballet based on The Winter’s Tale, I was taken by surprise. How does one render the dark heart of this play and its tortured relationships for the stage, not to mention the psychological and philosophical themes raised by a mature Shakespeare? It is also a tale of two very different countries.
The basic plot concerns Leontes, King of Sicilia (Piotr Stanzcyk) who becomes insanely jealous of his pregnant wife Hermione (Hannah Fischer), imagining that she is being unfaithful with his beloved friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Harrison James). Both Hermione and their young son Mamillius (Simon Adamson-de Luca) die, the former in premature childbirth brought on by Leontes’ cruel accusations, the latter from the shock of his father’s treatment of his mother. When Paulina (Xiao Nan Yu), Hermione’s chief lady, brings the infant baby girl to Leontes, he orders Antigonus (Jonathan Renna), his chief courtier and Paulina’s husband, to abandon the child at a remote place. (As a side note, this gives rise to one of the most famous stage directions, not only in Shakespeare, but in all of literature. Antigonus’ off stage death is announced by his “Exit, pursued by a bear.”)
Cut to Bohemia, sixteen years later. Perdita (Jillian Vanstone), the lost daughter, has been raised by Father Shepherd (Etienne Lavigne) and his son Clown (Dylan Tedaldi). Perdita has a secret romance with Prince Florizel (Naoya Ebe), son of King Polixenes. (To even out the numbers, Clown is given a dancing partner called Young Shepherdess, performed by Jordana Daumec.) When Polixenes finds out about the romance and threatens Perdita and the shepherds with death, they, along with Florizel, flee to Sicilia seeking protection from Leontes with Polixenes hard on their trail. There, Leontes recognizes Hermione’s emerald necklace around Perdita’s neck (left by Antigonus in her basket) and a great reunion follows. The capstone is Hermione’s statue coming to life. I’m pleased that Wheeldon and his set designer highlight one of the important melancholy elements of the play. The statue in the ballet is of both Hermione and her dead son Mamillius. She comes to life, but the frozen figure of Mamillius remains lifeless, reminding us of his untimely death.
The ballet is a long three acts, and it could certainly have been two acts by combining the second and third, but Wheeldon is a detail man. For example, the Bohemia second act is basically a series of pas de deux for Perdita and Florizel, interpolated with festive peasant dances. It is almost as if Wheeldon, when he is on a roll, wants to keep on exploring elements to the max. For example, how many peasant dances can he create with greater degrees of difficulty in each successive one? How can he make each occurrence of the pas de deux more showy in terms of eye-popping lifts and complicated partnering? The result is a dazzling display of faux folk dance and true romance for the lovers – flat-out choreography that takes the breath away. It may be over-indulgence on the part of Wheeldon, but it leaves the audience breathless. Does he need an editor, or do we want to see the dancing? I’m on the side of the dancing.
The National dancers have shown in the past that Wheeldon’s choreography sits beautifully on their bodies, both his innate fluid grace and his strong delineation of character. One of the glories of this ballet is the portrait of Leontes, and Stanzcyk, usually in frisky roles like Mercutio, shows he can be a masterful, brooding king. As his jealousy grows, his body bends and snakes, twists and turns, all in agonizing slowness, as if he is controlled by forces beyond his control. Yet, as a lover, he can be tender and sweet, as demonstrated in the beautiful pas de deux with Hermione. After the death of his wife and son, Stanzcyk plays Leontes as a haunted man, broken and heartsick. Wheeldon has him curled into himself, as if it is impossible to come to full height. Leontes is the only one to get a solo bow, and for good reason. With this performance, Stanzcyk adds gravitas to his already impressive repertoire list.
Fischer, as Hermione, shows off the fact that it was no fluke that she won the Erik Bruhn Prize this year. In that competition, she was a techno-wizard. As Hermione, she displays her acting chops. Always radiant, she is grace incarnate, whether delighting in her husband’s love, or being crushed by his cruel denounciation of her infidelity before the court. What a career she has ahead of her with those gorgeous long legs and exquisite extensions. Fischer has only been in the company since 2012 and it was just this year that she was promoted out of the corps to second soloist. A definite prima ballerina in the making.
The character of Paulina is interesting. In the play, she becomes the conscience of Leontes, a living reminder of the damage he caused to his family. In the ballet, she is grave and stern, never bending or breaking, and Yu is brilliant. She is a force on the stage, even when she is standing still. Wheeldon has give Paulina choreography that is strong, straight and fierce, and Yu embodies this ethos.
In contrast, is the lovely and loving Perdita, and Vanstone is the perfection of lively innocence. Her pas de deux with Florizel are light and airy, filled with youthful energy. Vanstone, even while executing dangerous lifts with Ebe, still manages to be charming. Daumec’s role as the Young Shepherdess is showing off technique in the peasant dances. She has always been one of the company’s superb technicians and she demonstrates her skills wonderfully well in the Bohemia scene.
James came to the National in 2013 and was promoted to first soloist this year. I remember him as a rising star in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and his promise has certainly been fulfilled in the National. From the get-go, he has been given leading roles. At the first opportunity, he’ll definitely be promoted to principal dancer. He is a definite prince as manifested by his youthful vigour as the supposed lover of Hermione. What is very surprising is that he is able to pull off the mature and spiteful Polixenes as well. James is an all-rounder, possessing both the technique and the interpretative skills, which will lead to future greatness.
It has been interesting watching Ebe’s rise through the ranks since he joined the company in 2006, being made a principal dancer this year. Slow and methodical, he has made a growing impression of consummate if quiet technique. I flagged him as one to watch several years ago. Ebe will never be charismatic or showy, but rather a dancer of grace and beauty who embodies the aesthetic of classical ballet. His Florizel is warm and giving, and he is also a sensational partner. At one point, Vanstone is up-ended, her legs splayed across Ebe’s shoulders, with the rest of her body being curled beneath like the figure “U” on its side. This is a position that is held for endless moments, and it is absolutely astounding in its execution.
Tedaldi, first soloist as of this year, is one of the young techno-wizards that Karen Kain has brought into the company. He excels at speed, and the role of Clown is perfect for the whirling dervish that Wheeldon has created for him. He can clearly negotiate every technical obstacle that Wheeldon (and others) throw at him. The choreography for the Bohemian peasant dances include every major element from folk dances around the world – Ukrainian, Greek, Middle Eastern and almost the whole Eastern European block show up in some way. Wheeldon’s triumph (if over-long) is the seamless fusion of these disparate influences. The peasant dances are clearly folk-based, but contemporary infused with their flexed feet and angled limbs. Tedaldi chews up the stage executing the de rigour lightning speed and mercurial changes of direction, as do his fellow dancers, both the men and the women.
Joby Talbot’s original score, which includes an onstage banda for the Bohemia sequences, is tailor-made for the action. The music soars in the drama, which highlights the epic nature of the story. One can also hear echoes of Talbot’s Alice score, particularly the tinkling music that runs up and down the scale in the more quiet moments. Both symphonic and chamber elements abound in cinematic proportions. In fact, the music is so strong that it is always present along with the dancing, and conductor David Briskin and the National Ballet orchestra received loud cheers from the audience for their nuanced performance.
Several production highlights stand out. Basil Twist designed the full-stage silks that act as sails. Pictures of ships are projected on them and the movement of the silk curtain conveys, for example, the fierce tempest of Antigonus’ wild journey. The silks are also used to depict the escape from Bohemia and the chase by Polixenes. These effects are certainly eye-catching. As for Crowley’s costumes, the word whimsical doesn’t even come close to capturing his Bohemia. Pastel colours are the motif, and just like Wheeldon’s faux-folk dances, the costumes embrace a multitude of cultures with their tunics, bandanas, shirts, leggings, boots, shawls, fringes etc. to create this mythical Bohemia. It’s the pastel palette that is the biggest shock (where one would expect primary colours), not to mention a fanciful tree festooned with golden fruit that dominates the stage. In contrast are the severe, solid-colour Martha Graham style gowns for the women and muted court dress for the men of Sicilia.
The standout choreographic moment for me happens when the innocent Hermione and Polixenes are walking amid the statues, but Leontes, who follows them, sees only infidelity. At those moments, Hermione and Polixenes freeze, while Leontes executes his agonizing jealousy with the fury of a man betrayed. At these moments Hermione and Polixenes spring to life and act out scenes of torrid lovemaking, which Leontes is imagining. The giant statues of lovers, and one lover’s nightmare make for haunting choreography, and kudos to lighting designer Natasha Katz for isolating Polixenes in his torment.
Despite aspects that seem conventional, such as the obligatory ensemble court dances, Wheeldon has used the narrative ballet formula for exploration. The Winter’s Tale shows a choreographer pushing his own boundaries, finding his way through character, attempting to portray psychological darkness, extending the art of the pas de deux. The ballet is light year’s removed from the glitz and glamour of Alice with its well-known characters and episodes. A Winter’s Tale is a choreographic journey into the unknown. The question remains, where will Wheeldon go for his next challenge, as he hones his craft as a ballet storyteller.
The Winter’s Tale, The National Ballet of Canada, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, Four Season’s Centre, Nov. 14 to 21.