This is one for Shakespeare and ballet lovers. Based on the well-known tragicomedy, The Winter’s Tale, the world premiere of the new full-length ballet by The Royal Opera House is a striking exposition of emotion. Co-produced with the National Ballet of Canada, The Royal Opera House’s Artistic Associate, Christopher Wheeldon, captures the powerful themes of love, loss and reconciliation in dramatic fashion. Classical tutus and traditional ballet are replaced with minimalist dress and modern choreography as a sterling cast of Royal Ballet Principals including Lauren Cuthbertson, Edward Watson, Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb dance their magic.
The austerity of the opening Act sets the scene of forboding turmoil, with dancers silhouetted in black huddling against a background of sombre grey clouds. Darkness and light are hinted at by the joviality of the next scene as Leontes and Pelixenes’ friendship from childhood to adulthood is neatly charted through compressed display – the two little boys who dance innocently together in red and green shirts shift seamlessly into grown men in more sophisticated pas de deux, wearing the crowns of their respective Kingdoms, Behomia and Sicilia. Their closeness is cemented by the introduction of Leontes’ wife, Hermione with whom they both dance happily – lifting her with gaiety, their happiness is captured though carefree pirouettes and beautiful port de bras.
The shift in mood is dramatically evoked through aural and visual deviation, with playful musical tones giving way to the discordant as the lush tree-lined backdrop sheds its leaves in decay. Leontes’ estrangement from Hermione and Pelixenes is cleverly portrayed through his withdrawal from the triangular symmetry of both men standing astride her, their hands placed tenderly on her pregnant belly. His mental anguish is dramatically captured by his jerked balletic movements which see him bent-double against dissonant pluckings of the violin. His fit-like spasms are all the more pointed against the softly lit Pelixenes and Hermione who remain bound in still visual closeness. In contrast to Shakespeare’s text which evokes the irrationality of Leontes’ suspicion that Hermoine has committed adultery with Pelixenes, Hermione and Pelixenes’ physical proximity evokes sympathy for the fraught Leontes.
The play goes on to nimbly chart key events from the text – Pelixenes’ hushed departure, Hermione’s imprisonment and death, the birth and disposal of Perdita, her love affair with Florizel and their eventual union. Notwithstanding its general originality, the final scene in which Paulina presents Leontes with the statue of his late wife could be more dramatic. While the pale blue and white staging provides an ethereal backdrop to Hermione’s animation from statue to life form, the consequent pas de deux between Leontes and Hermione could be more glorious given the remarkable revelation that his wife, some 16 years dead, is in fact, alive. That aside, Wheeldon’s ballet is a refreshing display of intense emotion, made all the more striking for its simplicity and modernity.
10 April – 8 May 2014
Tickets are still available – £9 to £81