Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Winter's Tale: A Riveting Reinterpretation

Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter's Tale. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

In choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s riveting reinterpretation of The Winter’s Tale, a new full-length ballet which the National Ballet of Canada presented this past week at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, the dancer portraying King Leontes, the troubled and troubling monarch at the heart of Shakespeare’s brilliantly convoluted story, collapses the palm of his hand and ripples the fingers in imitation of a spider. It’s not a move typically associated with ballet but on this occasion it serves as a fluent example of the art form’s ability to communicate powerful emotions and universal themes without the use of words.

The expressionistic gesture renders in physical terms the metaphor of the spider conjured by Leontes in the play when describing an onslaught of jealousy. Suspecting that his good wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, the suddenly sick-at-heart King of Sicilia says he feels as though he has drunk a cup “with a spider steep’d” and this has cracked “his gorge, his sides,/With violent hefts.”

Leontes’ deluded belief that an infidelity has indeed occurred is the pivot on which the rest of the play turns, veering sharply from a scene of domestic bliss to one of tragedy. Shakespeare’s late career problem play will later shift back to comedy mode once the King, in a sense, kills the spider gnawing at his sanity. The antidote will be love and forgiveness whose powers of redemption Leontes rediscovers in due time. These are large ideas, fundamentally Christian in nature, and the wonder of The Winter’s Tale is that they endure even when translated into the mute art of dance.

Words, of course, are the golden coins that have made William Shakespeare a much coveted treasure. His plays have never lost their lustre; they continue to shine with infinite wisdom, wit and linguistic beauty some 500 years after their creation. Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, a joint production of England’s Royal Ballet, which presented the world premiere in London in 2014, and the National Ballet of Canada, which concluded its week-long run of the work’s North American debut on Nov. 22, captures the Bard’s feats of genius without recourse to the verbal volleys which goaded them into being. It is no small feat. It is also why Wheeldon, a British-born choreographer and former New York City Ballet principal dancer, is rightly considered one of the brightest lights working in classical dance today. He makes ballets that speak to the mind and the heart, the body doing all the talking. His ballet language in The Winter’s Tale is wonderfully fresh and inventive: a kiss in a duet is performed upside down, the woman’s thighs crossed on top of her partner’s shoulders; pointe work is sharply flexed and thrust downwards like the churning blades of a machine; bent back solos replicate the emotional chaos of the soliloquies. Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale entrances completely.

If his name seems familiar it’s because Wheeldon, 42, is the same choreographer who created Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, another full-length production based on a literary text (in this case Lewis Carroll), and which the National Ballet has also added to its mixed repertoire of traditional and contemporary work. An instantly popular ballet appealing to young and old alike, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was an instantly popular ballet appealing to young and old alike. That production’s same artistic team reunited to do The Winter’s Tale: Joby Talbot who composed the original score, Bob Crowley who did the sets and costumes and Natasha Katz who commandeered the lighting. Newcomers Basil Twist created the silk designs that lend The Winter’s Tale its shimmery transporting magic while Daniel Brodie produced the rear-screen projections that establish changes in mood and setting.

Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal with National Ballet of Canada dancers. (Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

But where Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a light-hearted romp of a ballet emboldened and abetted by special effects and an imposed love story, The Winter’s Tale, by contrast, is a deeply philosophical and disturbing work that ought not be shown to the kiddies. Dysfunctional family relations – and that’s putting it mildly – are foregrounded in a story where a husband manhandles his wife in full view of their son who then drops dead at the shock of seeing his mother so abused. Making matters worse, Hermione is pregnant and the knocks to the floor threaten to abort the child. When the baby is born, she is banished from court and left to die of exposure on a faraway shore. Perdita (her name means lost) lives as the foundling child of shepherds who celebrate her 16th birthday with a bucolic outdoor party at which she finds her true love. Florizel, however, is the son of the aforementioned King of Bohemia, who flies into a rage when he discovers his son is betrothed to a girl socially beneath him. Polixenes threatens to kill them both and ironically it is Leontes, restored to his humanity by the faithful servant Paulina (her name is the feminized version of Paul, the apostle associated with conversions), who stays his hand and leads the story to its happy ending.

The plot has many ups and downs like this and reading the play is like watching a horror show turn suddenly into The Sound of Music. The transitions from dark to light can be jarring. Wheeldon’s ballet version, on the other hand, while faithful to the twists and turns of the romance genre, impressively softens the incongruities, making the various parts seem more united than apart. In making his ballet, Wheeldon has stripped away much of the plot and many of the characters to get to the essence of the story as he sees it – a loss that becomes a found. Using three economical but arresting acts, that theme is presented as a journey both physical and metaphorical that turns a situation of impending instability into one of renewal and hope for the future.

In act one, where Leontes’ jealousy is like a disease infecting the happiness within his family and at court, the atmosphere is symbolically wintery, flecked with snow, ice and the dark waves of a merciless sea. Act two unfolds at geographical and temporal distance, being set in sunny Bohemia more than a decade and a half later. The dark clouds of the first act have given way to a large verdant tree of life in which the country people dance with unbridled joy and freedom, their clothes as vibrant as their mood. They are accompanied on stage by an ensemble of live musicians who play airy flutes and other folk instruments that sound sultry and exotic. The foretelling of a marriage, a chief characteristic of comedy as a theatrical genre, makes sense in this context. It flows naturally from the tragedy that preceded it and continues without a hiccup into the third act where Leontes, literally stooped by grief and the horror that has come from realizing the folly of his previous actions, opens his heart to receive the stream of life-affirming energy that has returned his way. The closing scenes are dressed in white, symbolizing the washing clean of Leontes’ sin. The resurrection of his wife, Hermione, long assumed dead, culminates in a pas de deux in which Leontes is on his knees, repeatedly begging for forgiveness. Whether forgiveness is granted appears to be a matter of interpretation.

Three separate casts danced the National Ballet’s production of The Winter’s Tale and approaches varied depending on who was dancing. Hannah Fischer, a second soloist thrust into the spotlight by dancing the prominent role of Hermione, signals her willingness to forgive by taking the hand of Leontes – danced here by the magnificent company principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk – and encircling her own arm around his neck. Heather Ogden, on the other hand, retained some of the hardness she had embodied in her guise as a statue and was slow to touch her husband, powerfully danced by McGee Maddox, let alone look at him. The Winter’s Tale marked Ogden’s return to the stage after more than a year off having her first child with fellow dancer Guillaume Côté and she has come back with renewed vigour and a sharper sense of dramatic purpose. Perhaps it was her own experiences as a new mother that made Ogden’s interpretation of Hermione feel that much more brittle and poignant. How could you forgive a man who caused the death of your children? It was a probing question, and asked without the dancer ever uttering a word. But the audience could feel the emotional scars underlying Hermione’s ultimate act of compassion.

Other stand outs included Elena Lobsanova and Jillian Vanstone alternating in the role of Perdita, Dylan Tedaldi and Naoya Ebe alternating in the role of Florizel, Félix Paquet and Harrison James alternating in the role of Polixenes and Xiao Nan Yu and Tanya Howard, both profoundly eloquent in their shared role as Paulina, and Jordana Daumec as the Shepherdess. Conductor David Briskin led the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra in a ravishing performance of the multifaceted Talbot score which added to the great enjoyment of the ballet as a whole. A third cast, not seen, was led by Evan McKie as Leontes, newcomer Jurgita Dronina as Hermione, Svetlana Lunkina as Paulina, Rui Huang as Perdita, Brendan Saye as Polixenes and Skylar Campbell and Francesco Gabriele Frola alternating as Florizel, according to the program notes. From rookie to seasoned dancer, The Winter’s Tale made room for many of the company’s talents. The Toronto run is now over but audiences in Washington will have a chance to see them perform the new work when the National Ballet takes The Winter’s Tale on tour in January. A chance not to miss.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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