The Winter’s Tale
Brisbane, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Gallery of pictures (Apr 2014, London) by Dave Morgan
5 July 2017
From his choreography for the dance movie, Centre Stage, to his latest hit musical, An American in Paris, Christopher Wheeldon knows how to capture audiences, keep their attention and send them out to the foyers with a smile on their face. So it was at the Royal Ballet’s first performance of The Winter’s Tale at Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre on Wednesday where the audience reacted to the cornucopia of dance, colour and music with delight.
Doing the almost impossible, Wheeldon has created a Winter’s Tale that untangled the knitted plot of the play to give the audience more clarity, more fun, and more enjoyment than most productions of the play.
In Brisbane, we saw almost all the first cast dancers in the London premiere in 2014. Wheeldon made the ballet on these dancers, highlighting their personalities and qualities as both dancers and actors when casting the roles.
Edward Watson, as King Leontes, and Zanaida Yanowsky as Paulina, were the backbone of the ballet. Yanowsky’s fierce and physical responses to the abusive king and her motherly protection of his victims, Queen Hermione and their son, Mamillius, were so fully expressed that, following her official retirement from the Royal Ballet, we could soon see her on stage again if Wheeldon or another choreographer creates a role just for her, one that showcases her impressive acting ability.
Watson’s performance of Leontes, King of Sicilia – who suspects, then is sure his pregnant wife is an adulteress – wasn’t only a master class in the depiction of uncontrolled jealousy. Leontes’ rage and control over others also resonates with the behaviour of men, both past and present, in powerful positions but damaged by fragile egos that ultimately lead to uncalled for revenge on innocent people.
The Winter’s Tale is a ballet of contrasts, from the characters to the settings, from the colours to the choreography. There’s the contrast of the wintry cold in Sicilia with the warm summer of Bohemia; the contrast of the stitched-up Leontes and the joie de vivre of Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Federico Bonelli who turns like a spinning wheel); and the contrast of Act 1’s paintings of tall dark trees on a floor of snow, with Act 2’s beautiful, bright green tree of life, hung with folk ornaments. And always, the ballet represents the passing of time and the changes of seasons. Bob Crowley’s costumes mirror the mood, from black, in the Prelude, as the court mourns for the passing of the old kings, to the vicious guards who threaten Hermione and to Leontes’ black costume as he overlooks her court case and apparent death.
Green, the colour of envy – is that why we see Leontes in green at the start? – dominates The Winter’s Tale, whose magical token is an emerald necklace given to Hermione as a gift, and later passed on to her daughter, Perdita.
Polixenes and his on-stage band of musicians lift the gloomy mood of Sicilia as they enter and dance in their colours of red, coral and orange while Hermione and Perdita are colour-matched in purple. Leontes is often dressed in steely grey while Paulina wears pale blue then black, then back to blue as all is resolved and the colour palate of the costumes switches to the pure white and cream in the final scenes.
The choreography, in turn, flicks from the purely classical line of Lauren Cuthbertson as Hermione, whose arabesques and multiple turns in arabesque seem effortless, to the angry retires positions of Watson as Leontes in which his turned out knee acts as a symbol of danger as do his promenades with his working leg held high like a dagger.
Wheeldon has created a stalking, animalistic Leontes with splayed hands, crab like shuffles and rippling fingers that depict his hatred.
Throughout the ballet recurring motifs are arms held in semaphore positions and, for no particular reason, flexed feet, whether the dancers are in flats, on pointe or in the air and there’s a moment, when Hermione, desperate with fear, strikes a pose that could have been part of Martha Graham’s dance vocabulary. Act 2 in Bohemia has a nod to Giselle, with its prince hiding as a commoner, and an additional ‘peasant pas de deux’ for the vivacious Valentino Zucchetti as Brother Clown and his girlfriend, the young shepherdess, Beatriz Stix-Brunell.
Wheeldon and his composer, Joby Talbot, have developed a melting pot of every ballet folk dance you’ve ever seen including the czardas, Russian stamping steps and Greek dance, and some you haven’t. The partnership of Francesca Hayward as Perdita and Steven McRae as Florizel, is another contrast, this time in style. Hayward’s delicacy and demure manner and McRae’s bravado as he flies into split leaps and other virtuosic steps don’t make for a balanced partnership. Wheeldon’s this-way, that-way turns of the torso work well for most of the men in Act 2 but not so much for McRae whose fast swivels and facial expressions seem to be more about him showing how well he can jump rather than his love of Perdita.
Wheeldon’s collaborators use multiple design elements in every act of the ballet from the sturdy tree at the Bohemian festival to Basil Twist’s ballooning white silk sheets that act as a backdrop for Daniel Brodie’s projections showing Antigonus, head of Leontes household (Reece Clarke), carrying Hermione’s baby girl, Perdita, as they arrive on a distant shore of Bohemia. There, a storm and The Winter’s Tale’s famous man-eating bear of little brain who makes quick work of poor Antigonus who is, after all, only following his master’s commands. Twist’s silk effects are brilliant although the bear’s full face made only a brief appearance on opening night.
Daniel Brodie’s projection designs of ships sailing on stormy seas to and from Bohemia and Sicilia were equally beautiful. The projections were inspired by the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and although his best known painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, wasn’t part of The Winter’s Tale designs, Friedrich’s man in black standing on a rock and looking out to the sea and mountains could well have represented the miserable Leontes mourning the death of his family for 16 years.
On opening night, ten-year-old Queenslander, Scout Nicholas, danced the role of Mamillius, Prince of Sicilia. Teddy bears weren’t in toy boxes or children’s beds when Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was written but who cares when Nicholas’s appearance clutching his teddy as he watches his mother thrown to the floor was a three-handkerchief moment as was another little detail, the movement of baby Perdita’s hands and feet as she was abandoned in her basket.
Ballet babies are usually plastic dolls. Not good enough for this great creative crew of Crowley, Talbot, Brodie and Twist, and lighting designer, Natasha Katz,
Together, they created a ballet that’s likely to remain in the classical repertoire for decades. Sales were brisk at the shop in the main foyer of the Lyric Theatre as audience members snapped up The Winter’s Tale DVD. They just had to see it at least once more.