The Winter’s Tale is a world of wonders

The Winter’s Tale is a triumph for the National Ballet of Canada, performing at its versatile best in Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s late, great play. Sometimes termed a “problem play,” this fantasy about a king who loses all through jealousy and rage then finds redemption through love and forgiveness is not obvious material for a story ballet.  

Premiered in April 2014 at the Royal Opera House in London, where Wheeldon is the Royal Ballet’s artistic associate, the three-act dance has magic in it, conjured through Wheeldon’s choreography, Joby Talbot’s grand orchestral score and Bob Crowley’s bold designs for sets and costumes. Basil Twist’s innovative painted silks carry us through time and across oceans with a touch of abracadabra.

Piotr Stanczyk gives an achingly good performance as Leontes, King of Sicilia. His heart curdles with jealousy when he suspects his long-time friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, of impregnating his wife Hermione, the Queen of Sicilia. Leontes sends Polixenes packing, has Hermione imprisoned and after her presumed death directs his head of household Antigonus (Jonathan Renna) to abandon Hermione’s baby girl on an island. Leontes’ violence has so shocked his son Mamillius (Jamie Street) that he dies too. The dark tragedy of the first act is countered with the sunny scenes of acts two and three, a Shakespearean comedy staged around an enormous mossy tree hung with shiny ornaments.

It is 16 years later and Leontes’ and Hermione’s daughter Perdita, rescued by a shepherd in Bohemia, is a beautiful young woman in love with Prince Florizel, Polixenes’ son, who has come to her disguised as another peasant Bohemian. Polixenes is infuriated to hear that his son has made a match beneath him, but after more disguises, a spring festival, an engagement and a wedding, all’s well that ends well.

The genius of co-creators Wheeldon, Talbot and Crowley is to use dance formations, music and visuals to tell a convoluted story freighted with emotion at every juncture.

The back story is sketched in quickly in an opening scene of lightly costumed dancers choreographed to telegraph an account of how two kings grew up as friends. The stage is transformed into the Sicilian royal court when two monumental arches roll on, accompanied by four classical statues (foreshadowing is another feature of this work, for a statue of the dead Hermione will come alive at the end). A joyful reunion of the two kings is spoiled when Leontes spies Polixenes chatting with a pregnant Hermione.

Stanczyk, in a dark green tunic, curls a rigid hand toward his gut, and enacts a stunning interpretation of a man consumed with jealousy and vindictiveness. Hannah Fischer’s Hermione is all lightness and purity even in full-term pregnancy. Their tussle and Leontes’ subsequent violent acts are truly disturbing. Harrison James’s Polixenes is the picture of nobility, but he too will be bent by anger, then turned into a buffoon as he and his steward pretend to be peasant minstrels. (Another innovation was to bring on a live banda, playing dulcimer, bansuri, accordion and drums, adding five more characters into the mix.)

It takes highly imaginative staging for a story like this to cohere over three hours. This is where Paulina, head of Queen Hermione’s household, comes in. Xiao Nan Yu’s grace as Paulina becomes the calm at the eye of the storm and the character who accompanies Leontes through all his travails. Xiao’s commanding presence from acts one through three provides necessary continuity.

Youthful Jillian Vanstone as Perdita is well matched with Naoya Ebe, a nimble shapeshifter as Florizel. Subconsciously, we understand the forces at play in this cathartic work. The stiffness and constraint of the Sicilian court is represented in dark colours, formal wear and angular dance moves. The fun-loving, swirling Bohemians are colourful men in skirts and ladies in flowers—their free spirit epitomized in pas de deux by Jordana Daumec and Dylan Tedaldi.

The Winter’s Tale is a show you’d like to see again and again, to pick out more choreographic details and maybe be moved to tears again by Stanczyk’s performance as a humbled, grieving father.

The Winter’s Tale

A production of the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, through November 19

Photo of Jillian Vanstone, Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk by Karolina Kuras.

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