Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter's Tale succeeds admirably as a narrative ballet. Of course it exists apart from Shakespeare’s complex, late play as much had to be trimmed in order to make it work as a dance drama. What remains is a powerful, well-told tale with occasionally exciting dancing. Wheeldon made his bones choreographing abstract neo-classical ballet so it seems odd to say that the dancing may be the least of this ambitious production as compared to the quality of his story-telling. This is now his third major story ballet and he seems to be finding his way after a couple of false starts. Created as a co-production between the National Ballet of Canada  and the Royal Ballet, it surely represents a substantial investment with concomitant risk but this show is definitely a success.

Hannah Fischer (Hermione) and Piotr Stanczyk (Leontes) © Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
Hannah Fischer (Hermione) and Piotr Stanczyk (Leontes)
© Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada

The ballet began with an economical prologue that introduced the main characters. Leontes, King of Sicily (the striking Piotr Stanczyk) his wife Hermione (a terrific Hannah Fischer) and Polixenes, King of Bohemia (Harrison James) stood in an evocative pool of white light with a light snowfall projected around them. We saw the two kings playing as boys together and they were quickly replaced by the adults who played them. Polixenes visited Leontes after many years, Hermione had a child and was pregnant with a second and they were all fast friends. In just five minutes we knew these characters thoroughly. Then the story begins. Leontes becomes inexplicably and irrationally suspicious and eventually accuses Hermione of infidelity which leads to the death of Hermione and their son and then he banishes their infant daughter. It is a tale of jealousy, madness, loss and redemption, and Wheeldon tells it very well through his choreography. Xiao Nan Yu, a truly fine dancer, played Paulina, the head of Hermione’s household which is a pivotal role. She presents the newborn babe to Leontes in a fruitless effort to stave off the impending tragedy. Her portrayal was the best of the night for its pathos and lyricism.

The second act was the lesser of the three for me. Set in Bohemia with a gorgeously festooned tree center stage, we see Leontes’ abandoned daughter Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) sixteen years later. She has a beau who turns out (of course) to be Florizel, son of King Polixenes. It had much dancing but this is where the shortcomings of the production became apparent. Joby Talbot’s music was dramatically effective but not memorable. Unfortunately, it failed to excite altogether during the extended dancing sequence. One variation ended, another began, and it all ran together without anything like a climax make it hang together. Eventually I began to resent seemingly superfluous dancing getting in the way of the story. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Polixenes, who had been lurking in disguise, reveals himself as the newly declared young lovers are betrothed. He is enraged and moves to stop them so the couple runs away to… Sicily!

Piotr Stanczyk (Leontes) © Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National ballet of Canada
Piotr Stanczyk (Leontes)
© Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National ballet of Canada
The third act had Paulina acting as caretaker for a bereft Leontes. He leaned sideways and she tenderly carried his head in her hands as they walked which effectively showed his desolation and her solicitousness. Perdita and Florizel show up pleading their case for asylum and Leontes quickly recognizes that this is his old friend’s son. Polixenes arrives hot on their heels seeking his wayward son and it is eventually discovered that Perdita is Leontes’ long lost daughter. There are reconciliations all round and Hermione is magically restored to life from a statue. Their ending pas de deux was a lovely statement about the power of forgiveness.

Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale is not a work of genius. It has too many flaws for that. On the other hand, it is a highly credible work that will find its place in the repertoire for years to come. All along the way, the choreographer included deft touches that related the story with refreshing clarity. It had wonderful characters who were all so well thought out that you never wondered who was who. Wheeldon is still young so there’s plenty of reason to hope that he has a masterpiece in him that we will see in the years to come. The dancers of the National Ballet of Canada are a terrific group and they inhabited the characters of this challenging story ballet with admirable dedication.