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How dancers create character in Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet
He may not have been a dancer, but Shakespeare has become indispensable to the ballet. Choreographers can't resist his work, with plays like Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream constantly being reimagined for dance troupes across the world.
Still, Christopher Wheeldon was in rare territory when he created a three-act ballet of The Winter's Tale, a notoriously complex play that is daunting enough in its original form, let alone as a dance work.
To explore this thorny masterpiece, the British choreographer reunited the collaborators from his elaborate and fantastical Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Both were a co-production between the UK's Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, and next week, the Canadians bring The Winter's Tale to the Lincoln Center Festival for five performances, with four different casts interpreting the five major roles. (The Royal Ballet production premiered in 2014, just a few months before Wheeldon made his Broadway debut as the director and choreographer of An American in Paris.)
A densely textured "problem play" – in which the central figure, King Leontes, is upended by a sudden and irrational burst of jealousy concerning his queen, Hermione – the piece requires performers to cover a vast emotional terrain. Cruelty and desperation dominate the bleak first act, but when the action moves to Bohemia in Act Two, Joby Talbot's music takes on an inviting folk flavor. When these worlds intersect in Act Three, the performers must communicate reconciliation, maturity, and forgiveness.
On opening night, King Leontes will be portrayed by NBC principal dancer Piotr Stanczyk, who received his ballet training in his native Poland before coming to Canada to join NBC in 1998. He credits Wheeldon for using Shakespeare's text to inspire his character's unusual and disturbing movement vocabulary.
"The feelings of rage cloud his rational thinking, and you can really see that in the choreography," Stanczyk says. "Leontes' whole body gets twisted, and his reason and logic are trying to fight. His emotions take over."
Playing opposite him as the long-suffering Hermione is Hannah Fischer, who has only been in the company since 2013 and for whom this role is the most substantial of her career. She has given careful thought to the character she's dancing. "Hermione is very pure and noble," she says. "She is very deserving of her titles, loves her husband and children very much. She's wrongfully accused, and she has a lot of dignity. In the final pas de deux when she's torn [about] whether or not to forgive her husband after 16 years of being locked away, she still has that dignity.
"I think that's what Christopher wants to [have] come across. She is torn about whether or not to forgive Leontes. Dancing with Piotr, the way our chemistry is, I feel it's the right thing to forgive."
Mindful of these story beats, Wheeldon, with his assistant Jacquelyn Barrett, spent a full month preparing the NBC production when it premiered in Toronto last year. He made it clear to the dancers that even the slightest movements matter to the narrative. "The way you place your hand, or the way you look at Leontes, was so specific," Fischer says. "Sometimes you don't realize what reads and what doesn't. He was very particular about very small details."
Stanczyk concurs, saying, "We talked a lot about the characters and where they come from. Christopher's main focus is always about the audience, and projecting the message of the piece to the audience. All the characters have their own themes, and we all try to 'speak' very clearly with our bodies the story that is being told."
Susan Reiter writes frequently about dance for TDF Stages.
Photos by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada. Top photo: Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk.
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