That Royal Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon should continue into the 21st century the tradition of translating Shakespeare into dance form seems altogether fitting. That he has done so successfully is evident from his rendering of The Winter's Tale, a co-production of The Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, first performed in 2014. It was the latter who premiered it for the USA last night at the Kennedy Center. Fittingly, it was staged in the Opera House: Wheeldon himself was drawn by what he called the big operatic emotions of the characters, primarily – and most problematically – jealousy.

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

Leontes – Piotr Stanczyk – has the pivotal role, moving from sprightly pas de trois with his pregnant wife and boyhood friend to, suddenly and cataclysmically, the onslaught of cancerous jealousy. The physical transformation to convey what Wheeldon called this “least kinesthetic” of emotions was an example of superb choreography, backed by Joby Talbot’s shapely and sensitive score. As the rest of the court froze in a tableau, first his hand shriveled in on itself and soon his whole body was writhing and tortured, as his whole classical ballet idiom went out of joint: jolted ronds de jambe à l'air, leaps of incandescent rage, fisted hands, demi-pliés back to the audience, slithery steps as he spied on his innocent wife. Mind you, the pas de deux between Hannah Fischer's Hermione and James Harrison's Polixenes was rather suggestive for even a less suspicious soul than Leontes – or was this supposed to be a mere figment of his over-heated imagination? In short, what we had was a magnificent descent into mental instability, represented with grotesque physicality, as he wrecked balletic vengeance on self, wife, baby daughter and friend. Stanczyk was good, but was not quite as terrifyingly compelling as the choreography evokes. He almost has to be larger than the role. 

Hermione’s trial was powerfully scored and danced in intentional disarray: Fischer and Stanczyk partnered well to show off the disturbing symbiosis of abuse and victimhood: the defiance of classical idiom was once again apt. The dramatic climax came with the appearance on the stairs of their little son (Simon Adamson De Luca) hugging his teddy-bear, at first unseen, and later dropping dead from the shock of the violence he had witnessed.

Piotr Stanczyk Leontes, Hannah Fischer (Hermione) and James Harrison (Polixenes) © Karolina Kuras | National Ballet of Canada
Piotr Stanczyk Leontes, Hannah Fischer (Hermione) and James Harrison (Polixenes)
© Karolina Kuras | National Ballet of Canada

Act II was a refreshing counterpoint to the high emotions of the first. Set in carefree Bohemia where the royal couple’s abandoned daughter, Perdita, is being raised incognito, it features the free-wheeling rural proletariat rather than the messed-up upper-classes. The massive moss-covered tree was so magnificent a prop, and so much in contrast to the cold marble of the court statues, that it elicited a spontaneous burst of applause: indeed Bob Crowley’s set and costume designs throughout, including the referencing of Caspar Friedrich David’s landscapes, were first class. This was an act to show off the corps – lissome shepherds and villagers, all raggle-taggle dancing joy in pastels, smoke blue and burnt umber. Impressive throughout was the lightness of foot: all the dancers, it seemed, were particularly fleet. Again taking happy liberties with strict classical idiom, these were delightful ensembles, although they did go on rather. Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) and her princely swain, Florizel (Naoya Ebe) were deftly complementary in their physical styles.

Jillian Vanstone (Perdita) and Naoya Ebe (Florizel) © Karolina Kuras | National Ballet of Canada
Jillian Vanstone (Perdita) and Naoya Ebe (Florizel)
© Karolina Kuras | National Ballet of Canada

Act III reconciled the worlds of Bohemia and Sicilia with those admittedly hoary staples of romantic comedy: recovery of the lost child, reconciliation of friends, marriage, and in this extraordinary case, the discovery that your wife, presumed dead for 16 years, is actually fine, and indeed looks exactly as girlish as she did before. That’s a lot to fit in, and a lot of the problems are Shakespeare originals. The reconciliation pas de deux – to contrast with the almost fatal one of Act I – was a thing of beauty, as was the tableau formed with the restored daughter, all in the shadow of the statue of the dead eldest son (no, he was unlucky, and didn’t come back – blame Shakespeare). But Leontes is not as monumental a goodie as he was a monomaniac, and I thought the ending somewhat tame, and in need of more thoughtful handling to bring about a sense of the true magnitude of Hermione, the repentance of her husband and the sorrowfully irreversible passage of time. It is left to Paulina, danced with resolute integrity throughout by Xiao Nan Yu, to make the final prostration alone before their dead son, as the music ends quietly.

Wheeldon has created a memorable ballet here, despite some weaknesses. The NBC rendered the whole with integrity and grace. 

****1