The Winter’s Tale: Warm Production for a Cold Winter’s Night
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has taken a challenging late Shakespearean play – The Winter’s Tale from 1623 – and revitalized it into a mostly exquisite 21st-century ballet that breathes soul and spirit into an often cobwebby work. The National Ballet of Canada’s co-production with the Royal Ballet includes staging that draws on a rich collaborative palette of design and musical elements that update what is often called one of the Bard’s “problem plays” for its structural flaws and its hard-to-come-to-terms-with ending.
Trained at London’s Royal Ballet School , Wheeldon danced with New York City Ballet for seven years before becoming the company’s first artist in residence where he began to try his hand at choreography. His early works were, not surprisingly, Balanchinean – driven by line and technique rather than story and emotion — but he soon began to discover his singular voice. He expanded his style and choreographic reach by working on operas at the Metropolitan Opera; choreographing in Hollywood on the popular ballet movie Center Stage (2000) and on Broadway, where his direction and dances for An American in Paris can still be seen nightly at The Palace Theatre. That work also earned him a coveted Tony Award for best choreography.
Over the years, Wheeldon has developed his skill at storytelling in a pure dance environment, resulting in successful evening-length works like without his 2011 production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland– seen at The Kennedy Center in 2013 – featured the same creative team and the collaboration here is just as fortuitous.
The story centers on jealousy and, more problematically, redemption. King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia renew their childhood friendship during what amounts to a nine-month state visit to the Italian court. Leontes suspects his pregnant wife Hermione of adultery with his friend and in a fit or rages imprisons his wife, causing his young son Mamillius to break down. After giving birth, Leontes rejects Hermione’s baby, who is abandoned in a basket in a distant city state. The baby is found and raised by a peasant shepherd. Act II features a grown Perdita, that abandoned baby, who is courted by Polixenes’s son Florizel (of course) disguised as a shepherd. When the truth comes out, Florizel and Perdita, the young lovers, flee by ship to Sicilia. There eventually true identities get revealed and a wedding takes place. But Shakespeare in this darker romance, hasn’t finished. A stature of Hermione comes to life as Leontes prostrates himself before her image. Hidden for 16 years after her imprisonment, she and her king reunite is a dance of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Choreographically Wheeldon is an equal opportunity borrower and he also has great taste in what he collects for his own choreographic toolkit. While it’s a ballet, the movement language is far from pure ballet technique. The choreographer culled from a multiplicity of dance styles, genres and techniques. We see elements of contemporary and 20th-century American ballet in the angular and geometric details that embellish duets – flexed feet, turned in knees – suggestions of Balanchine. The wide ranging emotional stoicism channels Antony Tudor’s dark female-centric works.
The enervated torso and the dichotomous earth-centric pull hint at Martha Graham. Other sections feature a loose-limbed swinginess and humanistic corpus of dance recalling Jose Limon and especially some vivid and high strung passages of men dancing channel Paul Taylor. And that’s all before the second act, where a Wheeldonian utopia fuses a jumble of world dances into some new post-modernist expression of an imagined nation state where the steps and rhythms hint at an Irish jig or a Hungarian czardas or a Russian kazatski, all accompanied by an onstage six-piece folk ensemble playing wood flute, African drums, guitar, accordion and a dulcimer-like instrument.
Wheeldon is a whip-smart style thief who usurps movement ideas that intrigue him and reinvents them into something completely fresh and untarnished. Watching his choreography unspool over the three act ballet, elicits little sighs, nods of recognition, wonderments and surprises. His pas de deux – particularly his act one explicatory one featuring Leontes and a pregnant Hermione (Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer on opening night) – are exquisite. The lifts come from a natural – or at least natural appearing – place. The dancers intertwine and unspool in whirling, curving arcs of continual movement that doesn’t feel forced or precious and emits feelings of ardent connection.
The fastidious attention to the detail in the storytelling relies not on 19th century mime techniques but on ordinary conversational gestures that demonstrate how mightily body language, posture and a few well-placed gestures can convey complex ideas and emotions. This is where Wheeldon is best: illuminating a knotty, ancient tale and breathing new life into it for the 21st century.
Joining him in this retelling and updating of The Winter’s Tale is Joby Talbot’s rich and varied score, drawing on orchestral harmonies perfect for the most balletic passages, but also capturing syncopated rhythms of music from a wide swath of locales and cultures that, in blending and fusing cross-cultural sounds, feels both like an ancient discovery from a yet to be uncovered new tribe but sounds absolutely modern. Video projections, by Daniel Brodie often onto expansive swaths of silk draped and designed by puppeteer Basil Twist, allow for far more vivid scenic and location changes. These are enhanced by the gorgeous set and costume designs, which like the music and choreography, pick and choose from a rich amalgamation of cultures and regions. Vests and breeches, demure dresses for the corps de ballet and more severe ones that suggest Martha Graham’s torso hugging designs, allow for clear and precise display of the physical and emotional core of the movement.
The Winter’s Tale only wavers in relying on that problematic – and unsatisfying – ending. The final section, with a revived Hermione and Leontes dancing a reconciliation pas de deux is hard to swallow, until one acknowledges that this world – Shakespeare’s and Wheeldon’s – remains male centric and male dominated, and as in most ballet and literature, the forgiveness and acceptance that rights a toppled universe comes from the woman.
The dancing by the cast, particularly leads Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer, is unabashedly fine. The Canadians fling themselves whole heartedly into Wheeldon’s – and Shakespeare’s – worlds, making this Winter’s Tale one that inspires warm feelings on a cold winter’s night.
National Ballet of Canada’s The Winter’s Tale plays through Sunday, January 24, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House-2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.