Friday, 14 March 2014

Winter's Tale Insight

Insight evening: The Winter's Tale, Royal Ballet, Linbury Studio Theatre @ ROH - reviewed on 11th March
Soon to premiere in ballet form at the Royal Opera House, The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's late romantic plays. It tells the story of Leontes, King of Sicily, who accuses his pregnant wife Hermione of cheating with his best friend and King of Bohemia, Polixenes. Convinced of his wife's guilt, he imprisons her and has their newly born daughter Perdita sent away. (This abandonment is when one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions takes place - after Antigonus, a friend of Hermione, leaves the baby on the shore of Bohemia, he "exits, persued by a bear".) Even though Hermoine is shortly proved innocent, the stress of events cause not only her death but also that of her and Leontes' other child, Mamillius.
Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson in performance
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
Leaping forward 16 years, the abandoned royal baby has been brought up by shepherds and is in love with Florizel, son and heir of Polixenes. Unimpressed by the seeming lowliness of his son's choice, Polixenes demands the couple part ways, but instead they escape together to Sicily, where it is revealed Perdita is Leontes' missing daughter. 
Still grieving for his wife, Leontes takes Polixenes (who was in hot pursuit of his son), Florizel and Perdita to friend and noblewoman Paulina's house in the country, where a statue of Hermione has been recently finished. Suddenly, the statue starts to move and it is Hermione, restored to life. (Interestingly, the exact nature of Hermione's reappearance is left unclear. The way in which the statue comes to life suggests a magical influence, but it is also hinted that Paulina has been secretly looking after Hermione over the years. This latter possibility, however, is at odds with the fact that Leontes insists on seeing his wife's dead body in Act I and this request is not denied.)
Whilst The Winter's Tale's ending is primarily one of happiness and reconciliation, the unresolved issue of young Mamillius's death means that it is often considered a problem play.
So what is it that drew choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to such a curious Shakespearean tale? "There are operatic scale emotions which work well for dance. It's a story of contrasts - two differing worlds in the form of dark Sicily and the light and energy of Bohemia. The play has lots of good ingredients for a ballet."
Wheeldon grew up loving other Shakespeare-inspired dance works such as MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet and Frederick Ashton's The Dream. Translating the famous playwright's rich language into dance is not a case of creating choreography for each line of text but rather "boiling things down to their essence and emotion". Wheeldon has, however, had to use a certain level of artistic licence as much of the action in The Winter's Tale takes place offstage and is revealed through characters' conversations. "You can't do that in a ballet!"
Wheeldon is using with the same artistic collaborators he used for his last full-length work for the Royal Ballet, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in the form of composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley. But he is excited to be portraying a "more grown up story, a more complex narrative. To be successful, I felt like I needed my friends around me - and great artists they are too."
Crowley's sets give the ballet a fantastical feel, with cloudscapes representing the two main settings - in dark grey and black for Sicily and bright blue and sunny for Bohemia. Talbot's music uses lots of percussion, representing different sounds of winds which anchor the piece. Whilst he wrote to strict timings conveying different sections of the narrative, Talbot's intention was to make the music feel natural, as if he would have composed it that way anyway.
Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in performance
Photo: Johan Persson / ROH
At the insight evening, Wheeldon rehearsed three sequences, one from each of the ballet's acts. From Act I, he coached Lauren Cuthbertson in Hermoine's courtroom dance, explaining how she "has been so wronged and yet is so composed and elegant".
The variation bears similarities to MacMillan's choreography for Manon's Act II solo, with similar steps onto pointe and other delicate footwork, but Wheeldon's arm shapes are much bolder and more emphatic. The character makes one gesture towards her inner arm as a reminder of the royal blood in her veins; she also repeats the port de bras used to symbolise her and Leontes's marriage vows, as will be introduced in the ballet's prologue.
From Act II, Wheeldon took second cast Beatrix Stix-Brunell (Perdita) and Vadim Muntagirov (Florizel) through a romantic  and classical pas de deux. It opens with the latter touching his partner, to which she responds by "fluttering her arm with love". Wheeldon spent a long time working on the choreographic details, especially this opening movement.
Finally, Zenaida Yanowsky and Edward Watson rehearsed Paulina and Leontes' Act III duet, which takes place by Hermoine’s gravestone. Here Wheeldon's focus was on the musical timing and spacing for his choreography, which featured more bold arm shapes and a real sense of drama building.
The Winter's Tale will be onstage in just under a month's time and it will be interesting to see the final results.

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