National Ballet of Canada
Lincoln Center Festival
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

July 28, 29, 2016
The Winter’s Tale

Jerry Hochman

Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, presented by the National Ballet of Canada, stormed into the David H. Koch Theater Thursday night for a five-performance run under the auspices of the 2016 Lincoln Center Festival.

A 2014 co-production with The Royal Ballet, The Winter’s Tale is a multimedia spectacle. So what if the choreography is uneven? So what if no idea was left on the drawing board, no matter how superfluous or over the top it might have been? So what if parts of it make no sense? And so what if bits and pieces of it come way too close to Wheeldon’s Cinderella (the tree; the birds; the chariot that here is a ship in a storm)? Who cares, besides ballet critics who have nothing better to do than nitpick? It’s entertaining ballet theater, great fun to watch (and to gape in awe at the special effects), and even though it’s a winter’s tale, it’s refreshing as a spray of salt water from a wayward wave on a hot summer day.

Francesco Gabriele Frola, Elena Lobsonava and Artists of The National Ballet of Canada in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter's Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Francesco Gabriele Frola, Elena Lobsonava
and Artists of The National Ballet of Canada
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Unfortunately, however, the flaws in The Winter’s Tale, though not enough to condemn the production, and certainly not enough to recommend avoiding it, are primarily with Wheeldon’s often over-baked or under-cooked choreography. So what else is new? Like his Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, it’s a full-length story ballet that should have been better than it is.

That having been said, in general I thought more highly of the piece, including the choreography, after Friday night’s performance than I did after opening night. Of course, familiarity often brings greater acceptance. But seeing it from a different viewpoint (above the stage), and with a different cast, made it look less like a busy agglomeration of meaningless and overly repetitious steps. Indeed, despite the nitpicking I indulge in below, a lot of Wheeldon’s choreography looked really good the second time around.

Xiao Nan Yu and Piotr Stanczyk in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter’s Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Xiao Nan Yu and Piotr Stanczyk
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Also, it’s noteworthy that Wheeldon saves some his best work – and perhaps not coincidentally, his least complex – for the role of Paulina, the head of the Queen’s household, and the performances by the NBC principals in this role were a highlight of both evenings and should be acknowledged up front. While much of Wheeldon’s choreography is either set at a feverish pace or to one degree or another romantic (playful, youthful, sensual, regal), Paulina’s dancing is precision work that allows for no wiggle room or reliance on a partner, and which incorporates some of the most understatedly vivid characterization in the piece. The role is the anchor that holds the ballet together – which the audience recognized, based on my unofficial applause meter, at both performances. Friday’s Paulina, Svetlana Lunkina (a former Bolshoi principal dancer who joined NBC, initially as a guest artist, in 2013) executed the role flawlessly. But Xiao Nan Yu, an NBC principal since 2001, delivered a performance that was particularly extraordinary, displaying an even greater level of emotional depth. If there were no other reason to see The Winter’s Tale, her performance alone would be sufficient reason to do so.

The Winter’s Tale is a product of Shakespeare’s old age. Indeed, the meaning of the title might be seen as recognition that the story is a product of “the winter” of Shakespeare’s life. It’s also been explained as a synonym for “Old Wives’ Tale,” or as descriptive of “bad things happen in the winter” (in a more contemporary context of would-be kings, or queens, playing a game of thrones, the same sentiment is expressed in the ominous and somewhat ubiquitous observation: “Winter is coming.”) One thing that the meaning of “winter” in the context of the play certainly is not is literal – the likelihood of snow falling in Sicily is even less likely than, say, a man going suddenly insane for no reason. (Save your emails – I suppose that once in a green moon there might be a snowfall in Sicily. But accumulated snow?) Be that as it may, that’s the way Wheeldon and his creative team apparently interpret it: the ballet is filled with projected images of falling and accumulated snow. It’s nice to look at, but the metaphorical reference to winter via the gorgeous blue and white costume colors in Act III is more subtle, and considerably more appropriate.

Artists of The National Ballet of Canada in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter's Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Artists of The National Ballet of Canada
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

One of his least believable stories, The Winter’s Tale is not nearly as familiar to audiences as other Shakespeare plays that have been adapted for dance. The ballet takes some liberties with it, but it’s Shakespeare nonetheless – including the unfortunate decision, which Wheeldon adopts, to base Leontes’s madness on sudden insanity rather than on any outside intervention that unleashes chaos (as in Othello). It sets an understanding of mental illness back some 500 years.

King Leontes of Sicily and King Polixenes of Bohemia, who were childhood friends, reunite when Polixenes visits Sicily for an extended holiday. Between visits, Leontes married Hermione, and they had a son. During the Bohemian king’s visit, Hermione becomes pregnant again, and Leontes, as if suddenly struck by lightning, goes insane, suspecting that Polixenes is the father. His life threatened by his BFF, Polixenes thereupon escapes back to Bohemia, after which Hermione gives birth to a daughter, and Leontes orders his “head of household” Antigonus (who happens to be Paulina’s husband) to abandon the infant in a faraway place. Antigonus sails away to do that, gets caught in a severe storm, finds land, eventually abandons the infant (together with some Sicilian treasure and an emerald pendant Leontes had given to his wife in happier times) in an area populated by shepherds – after which Antigonus famously runs off pursued by a bear. It just so happens that the land is located in Bohemia, and a Bohemian shepherd finds the infant, together with the gold and the emerald, and adopts her and the treasure. (The shepherd is really a good guy – he apparently gives the gold to fellow shepherds to hang like Christmas tree decorations from the Cinderella Tree within which the Bohemian prince Albrecht hides his royal clothing so as not to be recognized as the nobleman he is. Wait. That’s another ballet that happens to have a character go mad on stage. Sorry.) Meanwhile, back in Sicily, Leontes finds Hermione (who’s pure as the Sicilian snow) guilty of infidelity, their son drops dead from high anxiety, and on seeing her son’s death, Hermione drops dead (there was a lot of that going around) and is carried off by Paulina. Realizing his mistake, and suddenly cured from his sudden-onset insanity, Leontes mourns. Now he’s just clinically depressed.

Evan McKie and Jurgita Dronina in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter's Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Evan McKie and Jurgita Dronina
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Wheeldon and his artistic team cram all this plot into one super-Act (incorporating a Prologue, Act I, and that scene on a storm-drenched Bohemian pasture), and the result is a miracle of complex storytelling and thematic development distilled yet thoroughly comprehensible. The staging works brilliantly. The interweaving of Leontes’s insanity and the palace’s statuary (which itself is a foreshadowing of sorts to the statuary in Act III) is handled in a novel and exciting way. And the presentation of the ship in the storm is an example of the ballet’s awesome stagecraft – I knew as I watched it that it had to have been the product of stage wizard Basil Twist even before I saw Twist credited in the program. And beware of that bear. (Spoiler alert: Despite excess artistic exuberance that might have been trimmed back a bit, the artistic team deserves credit for not importing a live bear. Those aren’t only Furies that seem to materialize during the storm.)

Following intermission, the ballet changes focus to Leontes and Hermione’s now 16-year old daughter, named Perdita, who just happens to be in love with King Polixenes’s son (whose name is Florizel, not Albrecht). But the thought of his son marrying a lowly shepherd’s daughter makes Polixenes go just a little berserk himself (there was a lot of that going around too), so to avoid being killed the two kids escape by ship to somewhere, hotly pursued by the crazed Polixenes and his entourage. They end up in Sicily, where Leontes, still in deep mourning after 16 years, finds them, sympathizes with their plight – and senses a strange connection with them. Polixenes then storms onto the island and everyone fears the worst, but the two old friends recognize each other, Paulina sees the emerald on Perdita’s neck and recognizes her, and jubilation abounds. Then, following the second intermission, Paulina interrupts the wedding celebration (there’s always is a wedding celebration, or two) and escorts Leontes to a statue of his dead wife that suddenly ‘comes to life’ (here it’s not just a miraculous coup de theatre – Paulina had been protecting Hermione, who hadn’t really died when she dropped dead at the end of Act I, from Leontes’s wrath – or a recurrence of his insanity – for 16 years). And the family – what’s left of it – is reunited.

Piotr Stanczyk, Harrison James and Artists of The National Ballet of Canada in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter’s Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Piotr Stanczyk, Harrison James and
Artists of The National Ballet of Canada
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Despite the more positive tone of the story in Acts II and III, the creative team made some unfortunate decisions after Act I, including (perhaps to exploit more of Twist’s brilliantly conceived and executed creative expressions) presenting the balance of the story in two separate acts. Combining them might have been logistically difficult, but considering the staging mountains climbed in Act I, it should have been doable – and it might have avoided the choreographic padding in Act II, and the dearth of choreographic ideas in Act III.

Which brings me to Wheeldon’s choreography – what this, or any, ballet should be about.

My initial (and continuing, after the second viewing) impression of the choreography for Act I – which, except for a bit of corps work and the visualization of Leontes’s insanity, consists primarily of interaction between the two kings and Hermione – is that it’s little more than a series of lifts, albeit choreographically harmless, in which one of the kings grips one of Hermione’s calves, and using it to help hoist her up, the two men swing her over their heads and then bring her back down. It was repeated too many times, and seemed hardly worth the apparent effort. Overall, however, the choreography allows the staging to move relatively smoothly, both enhancing and reflecting the characters’ states of mind (especially Leontes as he goes insane), and there’s little in the way of filler. And Act I is so good that the choreography, although not top notch, hardly matters.

Naoya Ebe and Jillian Vanstone in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter’s Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Naoya Ebe and Jillian Vanstone
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Act II, on the other hand, is dominated by the choreography. There are two basic choreographic components: romantic dances for Perdita and Florizel, and “folk dances” by the assembled shepherd folk. Even though in both respects the choreography looked better the second night, Wheeldon could have made the same visual points with a lot less. Multiple sets of romantic duets and a seemingly endless series of pseudo-folk dances (changes of direction in mid-air, shimmying bodies, hands angled in an attempt to create something Bohemian-specific that might be seen as similar to other Central European folk dance (e.g., Hungarian Czardas), no matter how well danced, looked somewhat generic. If you’re going to invent Bohemian folk dances, they should at least look reasonably like what Bohemian folk dances might look like rather than like gypsy dances a la Don Quixote executed by men wearing Scottish – albeit not tartan – kilts. (Indeed, given that the long scene is dominated by that gorgeous gold-adorned tree, the manufactured folk dancing seemed as appropriate for the Na’vi on Pandora as for Bohemian shepherds.) I’ll grant that this is supposed to be a multi-faceted celebration (a combined “springtime festival,” engagement party, and wedding reception), and people – including presumably Bohemian shepherd folk – can go a bit dance crazy at such celebrations, especially when the local pick-up band performs live on stage (a really nice touch). But restraint here, rather than some misguided effort at verisimilitude, would have been beneficial.

Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter’s Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

By the time he reached Act III, however, Wheeldon seemed to run out of ideas. There’s little in the way of corps dancing, and even less for the lead characters (how many times do we need to see Leontes writhe on the stage floor?) There’s no need for choreographic padding here (not that there needed to be in Act II) – this is a highly emotionally series of scenes that doesn’t require choreographic support to prompt a choked-back tear, but the limited amount of choreography provides additional reason for combining Acts II and III.

In addition to Lunkina and Yu, the NBC dancers are a quite impressive group. Hannah Fischer, who danced Hermione on opening night, is a striking young ballerina with achingly beautiful line and extension. Only a second soloist, her arabesques (featured in publicity shots) are to die for, and she exudes a ‘human yet regal’ stage persona that initially brought to my mind images of Vanessa Redgrave in the film version of Camelot. Her acting is more than adequate for the role (she easily morphed into a Desdemona-like innocent and sympathetic victim). But she and the evening’s King Leontes, Piotr Stanczyk, were unable to make the partnered choreography look as good as Jurgita Dronina (who delivered the same characterization as Fischer, albeit as a somewhat more mature queen) and Evan McKie did in the same roles on Friday. One could see the transitions and the effort on Thursday; on Friday the partnering looked smooth as silk. Fischer and Stanczyk, and Dronina and McKie, did equally superlative work conveying the emotional roller coaster of Act III, but the king’s first act “mad scene” looked clearer the second night than the first: As good as Stanczyk was, McKie communicated Leontes’s agonized facial expressions, as well as the choreographic punctuations that illustrated the king’s madness, more crisply.

Evan McKie in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter's Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Evan McKie in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Jillian Vanstone, the opening night’s Perdita, was Alice in one of the performances of Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland that I saw in 2014. Here, she’s Perdita in Wonderland. She’s a delightful sprite and a superb dancer with a contagious smile – but the smiling never stops. On Friday, Elena Lobsanova, also a company principal, gave a more emotionally nuanced performance that was the equal of Vanstone’s technically, but which made her appear more genetically regal. Regardless, both delivered superlative performances. Naoya Ebe and Francesco Gabriele Frola played Florizel on Thursday and Friday respectively, and their portrayals meshed neatly with those of their Perditas: Ebe’s Florizel was an exuberant puppy dog, while Frola’s was smitten royalty.

Jurgita Dronina and Evan McKie in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Winter's Tale" Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Jurgita Dronina and Evan McKie
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale”
Photo Rosalie O’Connor

In other roles, both Jonathan Renna on Thursday and Peter Ottmann on Friday delivered heartfelt performances as Antigonus, while Harrison James and Brendan Saye were equally adept as Polixenes. Jordana Daumec and Tina Pereira danced brilliantly, but differently, as the featured Young Shepherdess on Thursday and Friday respectively. Daumec danced with a feverish intensity and excitement, while Pereira’s Young Shepherdess was more measured, with greater clarity and class. They were perfect matches for the stage personas of their respective Perditas, as well as their respective “Brother Clowns”, Dylan Tedaldi and Robert Stephen.

The Winter’s Tale is a rarity: A visual knockout of a ballet that is different and original. Although not entirely successful, it is a highlight of the Lincoln Center Festival, and of New York’s spring/summer ballet season.