The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Opera House, Washington, DC
January 19, 2016
On the eve of an historic snow storm in Washington, DC, The National Ballet of Canada brought Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale to an appreciative audience readily warmed by the charms of this ballet version of Shakespeare’s late romance.
A co-production between The National Ballet of Canada and The Royal Ballet, The Winter’s Tale premiered first at the Royal Opera House in London in 2014, and then in Toronto in 2015.. The ballet, divided into three acts, is soft, mostly sweet, and generally enjoyable. The original score by Joby Talbot is pleasant, and the set and costume designs by Bob Crowley and lighting by Natasha Katz serve the story well. Act II’s expansive moss-covered tree, dripping with sparkly copper-colored pendants, with spindly roots rising from the floor, is a showstopper, as are the Bohemian costumes of fringed vests and hats, prints and patches. Especially clever are the silk effects by Basil Twist, more often known for his puppetry, and the projection design by Daniel Brodie. Together, Twist and Brodie’s artistic contributions divulge dark secrets and adventure that propel the story onward without taking away from the dancers’ telling of the tale. The weather is always at the forefront, whether grey clouds or blue sky or billowing waves and wind.
Among the dancers, Hannah Fischer as Hermione, Queen of Sicilia, gave a beautiful performance that should launch her soon past her present position of second soloist. She captured the role brilliantly and danced into hearts. Also notable were the performances of Naoya Ebe as Florizel, Prince of Bohemia, and Dylan Tedaldi as Brother Clown/Shepherd’s Son. Ebe made a handsome young lover, and Tedaldi displayed smile-inducing flare. But the dancer who stood out most in my eyes was the luminous Xiao Nan Yu. As Paulina, Head of Queen Hermione’s Household, she absolutely commanded the stage. Her movement, often composed of simple gestures, was clear and imbued with genuine emotion. She convincingly expressed dignity and strength, and did so with beguiling poise. It was lovely to watch her long arms, reaching behind her back, hands twisting with anguish and hope.
Wheeldon’s choreography provides enough complexity to stay interesting and enough straightforwardness to effectively communicate the narrative. For the most part, The Winter’s Tale moves fluidly. Maybe most rewarding are the little surprises tucked in here and there. The chorus of black clad bodies that appear in the prologue operates remarkably well to set the stage for the action to come. Some of the very literal touches, like Hermione’s bulging pregnant belly, and the use of an actual child to play the young prince Maxmillius, are probably unnecessary, and I could definitely have done without the placing of a hand on one’s forehead on multiple occasions to indicate grief or the pounding of fists to indicate desperate distress.
Where the ballet soars is in some unique lifts and turns. Hermione spins around and around en pointe with her arms down, not far from her thighs. Perdita, dancing with her lover prince, drapes over his neck like a scarf, her legs pulled up behind him, her face turned upward to his as if waiting for a kiss. At another point, Prince Florizel swings Perdita upward from her thighs, her knees bent in girlish jubilation. Act II’s flirty, happy group dancing is also a hit, and Talbot’s score, with dulcimer and drums, gives a wonderful folksy flourish to this sequence. The rhythmic pulsing and rousing leaps and lifts are intoxicatingly fun.
Overall, The Winter’s Tale works and is a success.