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'The Winter's Tale' from National Ballet of Canada

Hannah Fischer (Hermione) and Piotr Stanczyk (Leontes), with artists of the National Ballet of Canada
in The Winter's Tale (photo by Daniel Neuhaus)
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Not many new full-length story ballets get produced these days, when it is safer to create new choreographies for already successful scores or short works that showcase new choreographers. Thanks to a co-commission of the Royal Ballet in London and the National Ballet of Canada, British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon had the chance to do it. The new work, an adaptation of Shakespeare's late romance The Winter's Tale, was premiered in London in 2014. After its first production in Toronto last fall, the ballet had its American premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday night.

Shakespeare's play needs trimming, and Wheeldon's streamlining, assisted by his composer Joby Talbot, gets at the heart of the story. The bromance between Kings Leontes and Polixenes is put on the rocks by the former's sudden jealousy of the latter, whom he believes has slept with his wife. Leontes torments his wife with his rage, putting her on trial and causing the death of his young son, who perishes with his mother. Servants take the king's newborn daughter to a faraway land, where she grows up and falls in love with Polixenes' son. Driven by his father's rage, the couple ends up back in Leontes's kingdom, where all is somehow put right.

Piotr Stanczyk brought the jealous despair of Leontes to disturbing life, his spider-like hand showing the birth of hatred and his twitching, writhing movements making him more beast than human. Second soloist Hannah Fischer had a breakout performance as Hermione, the long lines and angles of her body framed by her white dress. Jillian Vanstone was a pretty but somewhat featureless Perdita, matched beautifully by the more elegant Florizel of Naoya Ebe. In the supporting cast, Xiao Nan Yu stood out as a particularly dignified and tragic Head of Queen Hermione's household, serving as the conscience of the devastated king and overseeing his atonement.

Other Articles:

Alastair Macaulay, Dark Suspicions in Jumps and Gestures in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (New York Times, January 21)

Sarah Kaufman, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ dazzles with its visual drama, choreography (Washington Post, January 20)

Rebecca Ritzel, ‘The Winter’s Tale’: The blockbuster ballet that almost wasn’t (Washington Post, January 16)

Martha Schabas, The Winter’s Tale draws warm reception (The Globe and Mail, November 16, 2015)

Clement Crisp, The Winter’s Tale, Royal Opera House, London – review (The Financial Times, April 13, 2014)

Luke Jennings, The Winter's Tale review – 'a ballet to keep' (The Guardian, April 12, 2014)

Judith Mackrell, Royal Ballet: The Winter's Tale review – 'A game-changer for Wheeldon' (The Guardian, April 11, 2014)
Wheeldon's star is on the rise, seen in recent works like This Bitter Earth, Aeternum, and An American in Paris, and he will choreograph the new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet set to open next December. His last full-length ballet seen here, Alice in Wonderland (presented by the National Ballet of Canada in 2013), had a big commercial success but was a failure as a story ballet, in the sense that it told a story but was more about stage effects than about dancing. The Winter's Tale is more successful at using ballet to tell the story, with stage effects providing some excellent enhancements. Video projections on silk scrims were breathtaking (projections by Daniel Brodie, with silk effects by Basil Twist), showing the various ship voyages back and forth, as well as crashing surf, and most strikingly the menacing bear from the play's infamous stage direction ("Exit, pursued by a bear") after Antigonus leaves the baby Perdita on the rocky shore.

While overall better than his Alice in Wonderland, this ballet still lacks a convincing danced climax. The emotional high point of the evening occurred when Leontes recognized his wife's emerald necklace around Perdita's neck. Rather than seizing on the moment with a dance between father and daughter, during which the statue of Hermione, brought back to life, could perhaps join in, the lights faded for a transition into a separate scene with the statue, and the energy dissipated.

The other problem with this Winter's Tale is the middling score by British composer Joby Talbot, who writes in a bland sort of pop minimalism (think of the theme for Downton Abbey) that produces little sustained interest. Talbot relies on the same crutches far too often: using metallic percussion of some kind on every other phrase robs that sound of its potential mystery. Here a group of onstage folk musicians (bansuri, dulcimer, accordion, and percussion), which have to be amplified, do not mix well with the orchestra. Good ballets have been made with mediocre scores -- Ludwig Minkus made a career out of it -- but a great full-length ballet needs much better music.

This production continues through January 24, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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