On the coldest November 10 in seventy-nine years, The National Ballet of Canada fittingly opened their production of The Winter’s Tale. Guests cozied up in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, eagerly awaiting their second full-length ballet in collaboration with England’s Royal Ballet.
Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, The Winter’s Tale takes a contemporary approach to Shakespeare’s comedic, romantic and tragic “problem play” about jealousy, familial bonds and love. The supposed adultery of Sicilian King Leontes’ wife Hermione, with his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia, causes Leontes to banish Hermione and his newborn child, Perdita. Hermione appears to die in grief, compounded by the death of her son Mamilius. Raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, Perdita falls in love with Polixenes’ son Prince Florizel and the young couple’s passion draws the families together in reconciliation and celebration. The choreographic motifs dramatically and definitively underline each character’s disposition in the complex tale.
The prologue begins in darkness. A spotlight reveals the corps de ballet, clothed in black and reaching to the snow floating down. In Act I, designer Bob Crowley introduces the visible divide between the two families of Sicilia and Bohemia through eloquent costume and set design. With fluid and blusterous turns in eclectic earth-toned costumes, the Bohemians contrast the Sicilians, whose sharp and flexed kicks lead in tailored and cool-toned costumes. The simple yet dramatic set design is supported by background art pieces that explicitly represent the mood of each scene. Long cement stairs of the Court of Sicilia in Act I stack up in contrast to the adorned, twenty-four-foot mossy tree in Bohemia in Act II. Joby Talbot’s sinister composition haunts the ballet with minor chords and rapid staccato accentuations. The Bohemians dance to folk instrumentation with South-Asian influences that releases the tension present throughout. These contrasting musical arrangements exhibit the ups and downs of the characters’ lives.
Impending doom looms when Hermione (Hannah Fischer) places both Leontes’ (Piotr Stanczyk) and Polixenes’ (Harrison James) hands over her pregnant belly. Succumbing to his insecurities about whose child his queen bears, Leontes reveals his tyrant character through sharper movements. In a fierce performance, Stanczyk transitions to a motif of stabbing and angular arm positions and leg lifts, flicking his feet behind him like an angry bull.
As Paulina, head of Hermione’s household, Xian Nan Yu is the grounded center and beacon of hope throughout the ballet. She turns with conviction and rapidly beats her feet like butter across the stage, stitching the tragic pieces back together again with sweeping gestures. Alone on stage with Leontes, Paulina takes hold of the fallen silk curtain, delicately wrapping it around him as if to encompass him in his own darkness.
Act II begins in Bohemia, where the corps de ballet celebrates the Bohemian springtime festival through percussive leaps, explosive turns and aqueous allegro. The now-teenaged Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) enters the stage like a light breeze, seamlessly moving between classical and contemporary movement while frolicking with her love Florizel, the son of Polixenes (Naoya Ebe). They eagerly celebrate their engagement with a pas de deux ending in a playful acrobatic pose, with Vanstone lifted in a fetal position around Ebe’s head. (Only the youngest of lovers would manage to get into that position). At Polixenes’ disapproval of their marriage, they flee by a big-sailed boat while he angrily pursues them.
In Act III, the couple arrives in Sicilia seeking Leontes’ support of their union. Perdita and Leontes finally reconcile, but their reunion abruptly ends as the two embrace and the stage goes black. No celebratory pas de deux occurs, denoting her delight and his forgiveness. Leontes’ change in character felt rushed before the positively charged wedding scene, in which he also reconciles with Polixenes.
The ballet ends with Paulina revealing a statue of Hermione to Leontes, which comes to life before his eyes. Earlier in the ballet, Leontes constantly grabs his face in distress, but now he wipes his face clean like a wave washing away his past misdemeanours. In the final passionate pas de deux, Fischer eloquently expresses despair and love with sustaining reaches from every limb. Back-to-back and face-to-face movements convey their struggle of betrayal versus acceptance. While supported by Leontes, Hermione’s iconic leg lift started with a slight hiccup, but once she gained her balance, she looked like a white sail calmly flying in the wind.
In a fast-paced and action-packed ballet, a second intermission feels unnecessary before the brief final act. Further, one hungers for more character exploration, particularly in the reconciliations between Leontes, Perdita and Polixenes.
Ultimately, Wheeldon uses strong motifs throughout to suggest that jealously and betrayal can evolve into acceptance and love, and that even in the coldest, darkest season, there can still be hope.
The National Ballet of Canada performs The Winter’s Tale from November 10 through 19 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.