A Winter's Tale in a Summer Festival

Dronina and McKie in A Winter's Tale, photo @ Karolina Kuras

The dog days of summer are often the worst time for balletomanes. The home companies' seasons are over, and the days of huge summer-long tours by the Bolshoi/Mariinsky/Royal Ballet are increasingly rare. It was thus that I found myself plunked down for a ballet (Christopher Wheeldon's A Winter's Tale as part of the Lincoln Center Festival) that I really had no desire to see. Hey, as I said, slim pickings.

I was already familiar with A Winter's Tale from the Royal Ballet video. I found the ballet slickly produced but unmoving, like so much of Wheeldon's work. But in that video I admired the demented, intense performance of Edward Watson as Leontes (sort of doing a Prince-Rudolf-in-Mayerling-lite) and also the matriarchal, authoritative Paulina of Yenaida Zenowsky. The National Ballet of Canada's 7/29 performance (it runs from 7/28-7/31 with multiple casts) had none of the excesses of the Royal Ballet performance. The performance suffered from a surfeit of good manners. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Evan McKie, photo @ Karolina Kuras
One performance really isn't enough to judge a company but I thought all the major principals were good, with some being very good. Evan McKie (Leontes) resisted the full-blown crazy eyes Edward Watson interpretation and took  a more dignified and regal approach. Jurgita Dronina (Hermiones) avoided the Poor Innocent Woman trap and instead was flirty and vivacious -- you could sort of see why her husband would be so jealous. Former Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina brought a quiet grace and dignity to Paulina. Young lovers Perdita (Elena Lobasnova) and Florizel (Francesco Gabriele Frola) were charming and cute. But it was the secondary parts that were for me the most memorable -- Jonathan Renna was kindly and grandfatherly as Antigonus, Brendon Saye being dark and dashing and a contrast to Evan McKie's Leontes.

Watching the ballet live did allow me to appreciate some things about Wheeldon's work. Wheeldon is an expert craftsman -- his long-standing collaborations with set and costume designer Bob Crowley and silk effects designer Basil Twist (who also worked with Wheeldon in his Cinderella) ensure that at the very least, A Winter's Tale will be visually appealing. And it was. The sets and costumes perfectly evoked a distant past but with a timeless, non-specific feel. The statues of Act One were a nice bit of foreshadowing. I particularly loved the huge tree that starts Act Two -- it symbolizes a new beginning for Perdita. As for the music, Joby Talbot also collaborated with Wheeldon in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Talbot's music is not going to enter the pantheon of great balletic scores but it's not offensive. Talbot's style mixes a sort of modern sound with traditional folk rhythms.

Wheeldon also knows how to tell a story in the sense that he distills the complicated plot of Winter's Tale into an easily understood, digestible 3 act narrative ballet. The first act is maybe the best -- Wheeldon in 50 minutes checks the boxes of Leontes and Polixenes' friendship, Leontes' marriage to Hermione, the birth of their little boy Mamillius, the visit of Polixenes, Hermione's second pregnancy, Leontes' doubts/jealousy about Hermione's faithfulness, Hermione's imprisonment, the death of Mamillius, Paulina secretly shuttling away Hermione's baby, Hermione's death, and yes, even poor Antigonus's "exit, pursued by a bear." It was action packed and never boring. Wheeldon injects some ambiguity by prolonging the dance sequences between Hermione and Polixenes and also by having Hermione's dancing with Polixenes be more flirtatious than her dancing with Leontes. The second act is a pure dance act that celebrates the pastoral romance between Perdita and Florizel. The loose ends of the story are wrapped up in the final act. In terms of pacing, structure, timing, Wheeldon meanders less than any other modern choreographer.

Second act pastoral festivities, photo @ Karolina Kuras

Where the ballet fails (and this is where most Wheeldon ballets fail, at least for me) is the actual choreography. He can organize a ballet so that it's a tight, well-constructed, visually appealing entertainment package but he can't actually come up with steps that do more than tell a story. Wheeldon remains a prosaic, repetitive choreographer who can't convey the themes of love and redemption that are at the heart of Shakespeare's play. The first act is an example: Hermiones wears a prosthetic pregnant belly but it's clear that Wheeldon never considered how a heavily pregnant woman might move, because she's tossed and lifted overhead and upside down like a rag doll  (with her legs in a split) repeatedly. Her "song of grief" is her doing spinning arabesques. It's typical modern ballet choreography (especially the overhead split leg lifts) but Wheeldon actually undercuts one of the play's most heart-rending themes, which is that the Hermione is being vilified and abused by her husband while she's in the final, least mobile stages of pregnancy.

Wheeldon's ballet choreography hasn't changed over time -- he loves pas de deux that are full of moves where the woman is draped over the man with her legs in some sort of split. His over-reliance on this step makes it lose all meaning -- women are draped over men when they're happy, sad, loving, hateful, lustful, and anything in between. He repeats other effects that upon repetition lose their power -- splayed arms/hands and flexed feet to indicate anger/grief is a particularly overused motif. His choreography for the corps de ballet remains weak to nonexistent. The charming second act (which covers the budding romance between Perdita and Florizel) has a beautiful tree as a backdrop and a pretty successful ambience of a pastoral romance. Wheeldon even uses an onstage shepherd to play a pastoral flute melody and an onstage musical quartet (including an accordion player) for the general festivities. But again the actual steps for the corps and the main lovers are lifts, lifts, and more lifts.  The finale of A Winter's Tale should be real tearjerker.  It's a reflection on Wheeldon's limitations tht Hermione's resurrection as a statue come back to life is strangely unmoving. The reunited husband and wife embrace. She moves away. She comes back. Wash rinse and repeat until she's reunited with Perdita. As I said, it tells the story. It doesn't touch the soul.

And that is the story of Wheeldon as a choreographer. Wheeldon is more in demand than ever -- on Broadway, in ballet stages around the world. You can see why -- he picks great stories, and usually has great music, and almost always has great production values. It seems he can do almost anything except make great choreography.


  1. Talbot's score is positively dreadful, without a trace of originality.

    1. It's utilitarian for sure. But I think the lack of originality in the choreography is the bigger problem.


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