When Christopher Wheeldon debuted his adaptation of The Winter’s Tale with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in April 2014, the story was untouched by classical ballet. Now, as its first North American run comes to a close, it seems he has added a new work of literature to the ballet bookshelf.
The Tony Award–winning team that brought the mesmerizing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The National Ballet of Canada in June 2011 has given the company a second piece of repertoire for its audiences to treasure: a revitalizing adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
Wheeldon’s innovative choreography drives Shakespeare’s story of a king who, in a fit of irrational jealousy, seems to destroy his entire family but is ultimately redeemed by the kindness of fate and his loving retainers. The production team succeeds at bringing the nuances of Shakespearean drama into modern-day ballet. Composer Joby Talbot’s score, textured with spiralling melodies, passionate surging and playful lyricism, fuels the portrayal of authentic human emotion and supports the dancers in revealing the Bard’s timeless truths about jealousy, anger, remorse and love.
Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes — animated and enhanced by Natasha Katz’s lighting design, Daniel Brodie’s projection design and Basil Twist’s silk effects — carry the production across space and time. The mighty grey statues of figures in states of undress line the stage at pivotal moments of the performance. In Act I, King Leontes climbs around the figures to spy on his wife, Queen Hermione, admiring the statues with King Polixenes, which triggers his unfounded jealousy. In Act III sixteen years later, Hermione, thought dead, steps down from the pedestal that holds a statue of their deceased son and reunites with Leontes at the end of the ballet. The costumes suggest changes of seasons, age and emotion. Stormy ship crossings between the chilly Sicilian court and the luscious Bohemian hillside create distance between the ballet’s two primary settings, and in Act III, the chilly and lush tones blend, emphasizing the return of spring to Sicilia in the production’s resolution.
The performance on November 19 showcased exciting new talent in the company. Making her debut as a principal dancer, Jurgita Dronina surges into her first lead role in this season’s opener. As Hermione, she elegantly floats through sustained arabesque turns while capturing the intricacy of Wheeldon’s gritty choreography. Both entering their second seasons with the company, audience favourites Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina continue to gather major roles in the company’s repertoire. As Leontes, McKie attacks Wheeldon’s choreography, articulating emotion from his core and through his fingertips, cringing with jealousy, jolting with anger, collapsing in despair, brooding in remorse and regaining strength in forgiveness. Dronina and McKie’s partnership brings intensity, vigour and tenderness to the production, fleshing out the complexities of Hermione and Leontes’ relationship. Lunkina is bold, sincere and relentless as Paulina, the head of Hermione’s household. A technically flawless dancer, she moves masterfully through Wheeldon’s contemporary shapes and patterns.
Second soloist Brendan Saye joins the principal cast as a fiery Polixenes, building tension with grand entrances and exits. In addition, Jonathan Renna, a dancer known by audiences for his nuanced portrayals of some of the most sophisticated and animated characters in the company’s repertoire, brings his captivating stage presence and acting abilities to the production as Antigonus. At the end of Act I, he performs the well-known, briefly rendered Shakespearean stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Making a quick rise in the ranks of the company, Skylar Campbell commands the stage as Florizel, playfully executing complex allegro with youthful stamina. Rui Huang, a joyful Perdita, matches Campbell’s energy as she lightly and effortlessly executes precise footwork. These two also show their range in the smooth Act II pas de deux, seamlessly linking sustained lifts with strength, control and trust. While Wheeldon slows the advancement of the plot in Act II, he brings the brilliance of the corps de ballet to the fore, providing a glimpse at the company’s dazzling future stars. These artists move through his intricate allegro sequences with precision and contemporary flair. With unwavering stamina and energy, they do not simply blend into one. They rise alongside each other, showing strength in numbers.
As Karen Kain enters her tenth season as artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada, she delivers to Toronto ballet audiences a second innovative piece of Wheeldon repertoire. The immediate standing ovation and sonorous applause at the final curtain call are telling signs that the artists connected deeply with their audience, doing justice to Shakespeare’s complex work and building anticipation for the rest of the 2015/2016 season.