My first experience of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale was not in a theatre, but in a cinema in New York. Presented by the Royal Ballet, the screening allowed New York balletomanes to soak up the intense, thespian drama of the original cast: Edward Watson as the deranged and bereft King Leontes, Lauren Cuthbertson as Queen Hermione, and the potent, powerful Zenaida Yanowsky as Paulina, Hermione’s trusted friend and head of the household.
Normally, a filmed ballet cannot hold a candle to a live performance of the same work, however in the case of seeing the National Ballet of Canada perform the Shakespearean adaptation, it was difficult, nay, almost impossible not to “unsee” the original cast. The well-edited film version, which is now available on DVD, has the advantage of close-ups, which may not be so imperative in a Petipa ballet, but in the case of Winter’s Tale, a story awash in melodrama, the close-ups count, and the film in many ways holds up better than the live version.
The camera flatters not only the acting but the choreography, which, live, is fairly lackluster and, if one has seen Wheeldon’s other full-length story ballets such as Cinderella or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, repetitive. There are the usual pivoting arabesques, women lifted into a crouched, fetal position, endless enveloppés, and figure skating lifts in the pas de deux. The brassy score is by Joby Talbot, the composer for Wheeldon’s Alice. Bob Crowley, another Alice collaborator, did the sets (including a massive tree) and costumes, and Basil Twist contributed the silk effects. The famous Shakespeare direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” was solved with one of Twist’s billowing silk drops which bore the image of a large, snarling bear.
The tortured plot – a jealous king falsely accuses his wife of adultery and as a result loses his son (death), wife (presumed death) and baby daughter (banished) – makes this seem like a more mature endeavor. Leontes, performed Saturday by Guillaume Côté, suffers from a snowballing neuroses in his suspicion of his wife’s infidelity. He creeps around sculptures on plinths, twitching more with each step, following Hermione – danced Saturday by Sonia Rodriguez – and indulging in erroneous fantasies about her adulterous affair with his friend Polixenes, danced by Félix Paquet. Macmillan, who more than once fixated on the psychology of the agonized male, feels omnipresent here. In the first and third acts especially, Wheeldon channels the 20th century love affair with psychologically compelling ballets, an influence which includes such diverse artists as Tudor, MacMillan and Neumeier.
Act II, an exuberant peasant scene, has the highest density of dancing. Here Perdita (Rui Huang) – Leontes’ and Hermione’s banished daughter raised by a shepherd – flirts with Florizel (Skylar Campbell) who is Polixenes’ son in a shepherd’s disguise. They have some touching and playful moments dancing together, particularly in their petit allegro sequence near the start of the act. The ensemble choreography for the corps is vivacious, with concentric circles and sprinklings of folk dancing. This is Bohemia after all, and not the cool, classical Sicilia of the first act. Boys and girls flirt and flit and bound about. It starts off very tight, and has some of the most entertaining choreography across the ballet, but as it continues, it starts to run ragged and mushrooms into a busy spectacle.
The redemptive scene in the third act, is a somber reckoning for Leontes. After Paulina, danced by Svetlana Lunkina, reveals that Hermione has been alive for over a decade, the couple is reunited. Hermione’s choreography is reserved, she does not immediately rejoice in being reunited with her husband who put her on trial under false accusations. Rodriguez does this well, and the couple’s reunion is plaintive and not without its difficulties. The lines are simple, clean and direct and hark back to Hermione’s choreography during her trial scene, including her costume: an all-white, long-sleeved, ankle length gown that beams purity.
Paulina has some of the best choreography in the entire ballet. Her dignified, steady and stoic air paints the tragic mood and its eventual turn into a redemption tale. Her movements are never cluttered, and Wheeldon gives her a certain language she alone uses across the three acts, and which closes the ballet, with the gentle, eloquent folding of her body down to the ground.
Wheeldon’s storytelling is effective. It is clear, most of the time, what is happening, which is to be commended. What is interesting is how similar it feels choreographically, despite the plot’s intensity, to his other full-length story works. Every choreographer has their voice, and if Wheeldon’s current oeuvre satisfies you then this will too, but don’t expect a significant departure. Talbot’s score is always about to combust in a brassy explosion, and feels cold and arbitrary. Even when he dusts the lovers in chiming twinkling orchestration it feels calculated rather than an organic, inevitable summation of the synergy between score and narrative. The musical themes that do surface are hard to latch on to. Something about Tale is staid, dry and removed, despite Leontes’ contorted twists and jealous grimaces and Hermione’s desperate pleas for her innocence. There is no getting swept away by Winter’s Tale, which lacks the gripping absorption of other Shakespearean adaptations or psychologically intense ballets. But perhaps it is too romantic in this modern day and age to want more romance from one of Shakespeare’s “late romances.”