The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016.
The National Ballet of Canada recently brought its newest production, The Winter’s Tale, to the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, marking the U.S. premiere of another full-length ballet set by the internationally acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his creative team. Under the direction of Karen Kain, the National Ballet of Canada boasts a company of 70 dancers, its own orchestra and a diverse repertoire of all the ballet greats, but, honestly, they weren’t on my must-see list until I heard they were performing Wheeldon’s latest work. After seeing this stunning production, I am a believer in both the much-hyped magic of Wheeldon’s choreographic vision and of the National Ballet’s growing reputation as one of the top international ballet companies in the world.
Wheeldon’s spectacular interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has the look and feel of a cinematic epic, complete with sweeping vistas courtesy of Daniel Brodie’s projections and dramatic full stage silk effects by the brillant Basil Twist, and, as such, it clocks in at just over two-and-a-half hours. Although I will admit to getting a bit antsy — and a lot hungry — by the time all those gorgeous dancers took their last bows, I was completely mesmerized by the elegance of Bob Crowley’s ever-shifting sets, Joby Talbot’s operatic score and the vulnerability with which the dancers articulated their characters’ complex emotions. If I could see the show again tomorrow, I would jump at the chance, but I would defintely eat a small feast before heading to the theater.
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is something of a parable about the power and poison of jealousy. A largely psychological drama, this odd tragi-comedy doesn’t lend itself to choreographic adaptation as easily as the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer’s Night Dream, which have long been part of the ballet canon. Wheeldon tackles this challenge by paring the story down to its essence and creating a rich, inventive movement vocabulary unique to each of the principal characters, drawing upon but not limited by the conventions of classical ballet. Natasha Katz’s evocative lighting frequently comes to Wheeldon’s aid by deftly signaling the frequent shifts from present action into and out of the inner life of this world’s heroes.
Like the original play, Wheeldon’s interpretation contrasts the starkness of Sicily as ruled by King Leontes with the techni-color paradise of King Polixenes’ Bohemia, but Wheeldon wisely trims the enormous cast of characters and cuts some of the tangental elements of the plot. What remains is essentially a quartet of principal characters — the two Kings, Leontes’ wife, Herimone, and her friend, Paulina — around whom Wheeldon centers the action. King Leontes and King Polixenes are depicted as friends who are separated as children to rule their respective kingdoms. Polixenes comes to visit his friend Leontes, and both men seem to adore Leontes’ beautiful, good-natured wife, Queen Herimone, who is pregnant with Leontes’ second child. Leontes suddenly becomes possessed with jealousy and convinces himself that his wife and his childhood friend are having an affair, which sends him into an uncontrollable rage. He nearly kills Polixenes, imprisons his pregnant wife, disowns his newborn daughter and literally scares his young son, Maximillus, to death. All the while, Herimone’s friend, Paulina, works tirelessly to tame the chaos, soothing a nearly mad king while mercifully working to exile his wife and daughter in an effort to preserve their lives. Later, Polixenes, seemingly tainted by his friends’ anger, violently breaks up the would-be engagement of his son, Florizel, with a supposed shepherd girl Perdita, who is actually the now-grown exiled princess of Sicily.
Even with Wheeldon’s considerable cuts, it is still a complex and sprawling story, but, fortunately for Wheeldon, every character in this epic ballet is portrayed with such honesty and skill that the archetypes are rendered human, flawed but sympathetic, by the National Ballet’s accomplished company. On Tuesday night’s program, Principal Dancer Piotr Stanczyk portrayed King Leontes with power and raw emotion, capturing the character’s descent from domestic bliss into a hell of his own making. With his broad stature and dark brooding features, Stanczyk looked so perfectly the part of the mad, melancholy king that I have a hard time imagining the role being danced by anyone else. His Queen Herimone for the evening was Hannah Fischer, a luminous, long-limbed beauty of a dancer, who is credited as a Second Soloist in the program. I am guessing she is the regular understudy for the principal dancer, who is currently listed as being out on maternity leave, but I am her biggest fan and hope she gets a nice promotion soon. The part of King Polixenes was danced by First Soloist Harrison James with lots of charm and high-flying leaps, but, for me, the real star of the show was Xian Nan Yu as Paulina, the head of Queen Herimone’s household. Yu brings so much authenticity and maturity to the role that her flawless technique is almost beside the point. Xian Nan Yu’s Paulina is noble and gentle, almost angelic, and yet also a quick-thinking risk-taker, who serves as a strong voice for peace and redemption without considering the price of her own happiness.
Despite my enthusiasm for the work and the dancers, the ballet did have its share of shortcomings. At times, Leontes’ spiral into madness was almost Graham-like in its form and fervor, which was awkwardly incongruent with more nuanced visual language of the rest of the production. The second act, full of colorful spectacle and exuberant quasi-folk dancing, began as a delightful reprieve from the tragic first act but continued for far too long until it devolved into a tedious divertissement. And then, Wheeldon rushes to bring the story to its mostly happy conclusion at such break-neck speed that it was too difficult to follow the action and almost impossible to maintain an emotional connection to the characters. While the quick unraveling of a dramatic knot is not uncommon in Shakespeare or conventional narrative ballets, Wheeldon is a victim of his own success here; he renders King Leontes’ senseless rage and Queen Herimone’s desperate grief so convincingly in the first act that this return to ballet-business-as-usual feels like a betrayal of his own work.
That said, Wheeldon redeems himself in the final moments of the third act. Paulina, as portrayed by Yu, is left alone onstage enacting again the now familiar choreography of her grief before a small stone figure memorializing Prince Maxmillus, the youngest victim of his father’s rage. As the curtain closes, Paulina prostrates herself in grief and provides the audience with a brief moment to count the cost of such a “happy ending”. This woman served her King faithfully and selflessly; through her wisdom and cleverness, she preserved the lives of the wife and daughter he threatened to destroy. In the end, the King lives to grieve his son and his own folly, and, through the efforts of this noble woman, is reunited with his exiled family. For her efforts, Paulina is left alone with her grief over the loss of her husband, who died saving the baby princess, a dangerous mission he carried out at her direction. Despite the manic pace of the third act, this final moment as interpreted by Yu is deeply moving and brings this sweeping tale to a satisfying conclusion.
By Angella Foster of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.