Last January in a winter’s tale of sorts, Guillaume Côté and Sonia Rodriguez were scheduled to debut in their roles as Leontes and Hermione with the National Ballet of Canada at The Kennedy Center, but, alas, they got snowed out – game called on account of so much paralyzing snow & blow that the storm was nicknamed Snowzilla. It was not the first time that bad weather packed a theater case and traveled with the Canadians on tour to our eastern states. During the third week of July in 2013 when the company traveled to Saratoga Springs to present Giselle al fresco, the state experienced one of its worst ever heat waves that lasted nearly a week. On the Thursday that Haglund traveled to Saratoga for a matinee performance, the temps hit 100˚ with the heat index at 110˚. It initially appeared this week that we might have a repeat of that punishment for NBofC’s visit to Lincoln Center, but we lucked out and got a break in temps along with a good drenching rain instead.
So, Côté and Rodriguez have been waiting a half year for their second chance debuts in Christopher Wheeldon’s remarkable full length ballet based on Shakespeare’s complicated five-act play, The Winter’s Tale. Those chances came Saturday afternoon in a rare and wonderful performance in which the pent up energies from last winter exploded into dance drama that was unexpectedly rich and riveting.
We already knew the story. We already were familiar with the choreography, music, and special effects. The ballet had been cinemacast around the world in 2014 by the Royal Ballet in its heralded premiere performance. What we didn’t know – what we couldn’t anticipate was how seasoned artists like Côté and Rodriguez along with Svetlana Lunkina as Paulina would speak with their steps, how they would shade the tones of their movements, how they would react to and feed off each other’s individual artistry in the ultra high performance environment that is the New York stage. Collectively on Saturday, they delivered a Shakespearean range of emotions so fluently and persuasively that the viewer might have forgotten that The Winter’s Tale was originally a famous written play rather than a ballet.
Portraying Leontes, King of Sicilia, Cote mined the character's psychosis, emotional torment, and return to rationality for all its gold. In Act I as he spied on his pregnant wife, Hermione, while she cavorted among the statues with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, his delusional jealousy was most revealing in the pauses from movement, in the stillness of his intense focus on the two who he believed were betraying him.
Ultimately, the king banished Polixenes from Sicilia in a fit of wild anger. Then he stumbled forward to the front of the stage and spontaneously erupted into loud, demented laughter that shocked the audience. After sending his wife to prison where she gave birth and (presumably) died, Côté's king sat motionlessly on a chair at the front of the stage and stared blankly into his own dark, troubled space. One could sense the insidious jealousy eating him from the inside out, paralyzing him with thoughts that he could not escape.
The movement vocabulary for the king was originally made on Edward Watson of the Royal Ballet, today’s foremost interpreter of dance characters with complex, troubled minds. Watson’s unique imprint is all over the choreography – flexibility fraught with so much tension and anguish that psychological snap is inevitable. Wheeldon’s production would never have risen to its high level of drama if someone other than Watson had been the initial source of choreographic inspiration for the central character of Leontes. Wheeldon and Watson working together didn’t just get it right; they got it great.
Sonia Rodriguez as Hermione, Queen of Sicilia, brought us to the verge of our own collapse with her suffering. We were horrified when Leontes threw the pregnant Hermione to the ground and brutalized her because he believed that she had been unfaithful. Incorporating violence into choreography is hazardous because it can come off as looking like it is being advocated sensationally as it usually does in the young Liam Scarlett’s forays into dark drama. But here we saw none of that; the violence was choreographed with sensitivity, not cinematic aggressivity. It’s to Wheeldon’s credit that he had the maturity to know the difference and the skill to respect the boundaries.
Svetlana Lunkina as Paulina, Head of Queen Hermione’s Household, was the driver of the plot in this production and the behind-the-scenes creator of resolution. The strength of Paulina’s commitment to Hermione and to her defense never faltered. At times, she seemed that she might be a tool of divine intervention as she protected the newborn daughter, faked the death of Hermione, and ultimately was the force who reunited the family. But the limitations of her human form meant that the story would close without complete resolution as there was no way to reverse the death of Leontes' and Hermione’s first son who died from the effects of watching his parents quarrel. She took his death as her personal failure, and as the curtain lowered on the ballet she was on her knees with head bowed to the floor in front of the child’s statue.
The drama of this ballet is so deep and rewarding that it seems almost frivolous to discuss the technical dancing. It was of a very high standard and there was no marginalizing of technical requirements. An arabesque line was a clear arabesque line no matter what. Arms were classically perfect and when the choreography called for deviation such as when Leontes and Hermione used right-angle arms to convey commitment, there was a visible common standard of execution. The vocabulary was a hybrid of classical ballet with Graham influences. Miss Graham knew how to communicate the heaviness and intensity of human drama, and here Wheeldon bent torsos with occasional contractions, incorporated stiff limbed movements and swirling floor choreography common in Graham’s works to brilliant effect.
But much of the ballet sounded the ring of other great choreographic influences as well. When Leontes wrapped himself at the feet of Hermione begging for forgiveness as she stared forward without expression, we were reminded of Onegin and Tatiana. Whenever six or eight corps women were dancing as an ensemble, we tended to think about Juliet’s Friends or some of the fairies in The Dream. These likenesses were not steps copied but were more like recognizing a father’s features in his son’s face or their similar gaits when walking. The son will grow to be his own man but hopefully will retain characteristics that will serve as reminders of our fondness of those who came before.
The structure of the production combined the first three acts of Shakespeare’s play into the first act of the ballet followed by a second act which relayed the play’s Bohemian scene followed by the third act of resolutions. Act II contained very little drama and incorporated the type of choreography for which Wheeldon is well known. There was an over-reliance on pas de deux which without a narrative connected tended to look rather familiar with each other and similar to other Wheeldon works. The folkish ensemble work, particularly the men’s, included new ideas and was vibrantly danced.
If Act II seemed to drone on endlessly, it was due to the drone of the musical score by Joby Talbot. Where in much of Acts I & III Talbot’s music was able to compliment and help drive the drama, here in Act II it unfortunately failed to contribute to the enjoyment of the choreography as we normally expect music to do. His score won’t stand on its own as a piece of music worth listening to for its own sake. The ability to have an independent value is generally a requirement for a successful ballet score. There may be exceptions, but Talbot hasn’t produced one of them yet. We would rather have seen this choreography made to a patchwork of bona fide classical music than to the droning, melody-less, background motion picture music that Talbot composed. Wheeldon spent the bulk of his career at New York City Ballet where the music comes first in importance. Hopefully, he will come back to that idea.
The Winter’s Tale, like Wheeldon’s Alice and Cinderella, includes special effects by the genius puppeteer, Basil Twist. There is no limit to this artist's imagination; everything that he has come up with for Wheeldon’s ballets has been completely unexpected and potently entertaining. At the end of Act I of this production, the character Antigonus has the task of abandoning Hermoine’s and Leontes’ infant daughter on the shores of Bohemia for hopefully safe finding by well meaning caretakers. He is then chased off by a bear and killed. Our bear was in the form of a billowing silk curtain that rolled up and down and around revealing the bear’s head and claws as it “chased” Antigonus. Other fabulous set contributions included sailing ships – some were projections while some were set material with projections onto the sails.
Currently there is some controversy about incorporating computer-generated animation into live theater productions, especially in opera and ballet that have always valued achieving artistic product the hard way. The Lincoln Center Festival’s production of Golem which ends today uses CGA to bring imaginary, slightly scary creatures to life. The crux of the controversy seems to be how the computer generated effects tend to over-power the actual stagecraft by the human artists. A production becomes all about the special effects while the acting, singing, and dancing are relegated to secondary importance.
Wheeldon’s big works have been coming closer and closer to crossing the line where the choreography is less important than the special effects. Presently, there is a risk that special effects could be seen as an acceptable substitute for when strong dance ideas don't come to the choreographer swiftly or easily enough. We hope not. To be honest, we offer this warning while at the same time we are dying to know if Wheeldon’s new Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker, which is based on Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, will have a full sized special effects ferris wheel anything like the world’s first which was introduced at the 1893 Fair. [✔︎Plan trip to Chicago.]
The Winter’s Tale isn’t just Wheeldon’s best work. It is also his most important, most cerebral, most inventive, most skilled, and most adventurous narrative dance effort to date. It marks him with the clear potential to deliver future works at the levels of MacMillan, Cranko, Neumeier, and Ashton – if he will commit to the effort and stay the bumpy course in this age of commercial distraction that entices frivolous, fast, one-time shots of Instagimmicky art. Still young as a major choreographer, Wheeldon has several decades of creativity ahead. As Shakespeare noted, each spring yields weeds along with beauty, but those weeds are always shallow-rooted and easy to pull up to make room for the beautiful flowers. In Wheeldon’s garden, we’ll gladly and quickly yank up the shallow-rooted weeds each time they sprout and eagerly wait for his next real blooms.
The HH Pump Bump Award, a gold Louboutin with triple crown strap slightly out of kilter, is bestowed upon Guillaume Côté for his riveting performance of Leontes.