The National Ballet's production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale opens with a beautiful, expressionistic image: intertwined dancers caught as silhouettes in a cone of white light. The moment is a good example of the way that choreography can distil plot without resorting to heaps of pantomime. This challenge is at the crux of Christopher Wheeldon's ambitious three-act adaptation: How do you take a long, unwieldy play that depicts vastly disparate themes (psychological neuroses in one act, bucolic love in the next) and turn it into movement? What in particular can ballet exploit about sadistic jealousy, love and redemption?
Wheeldon, currently artistic associate at The Royal Ballet, has established himself as something of 21st-century proprietor of the story-ballet. It's a role that's certainly in keeping with Royal Ballet tradition, following in the narrative footsteps of choreographers Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. And it's a methodology that seems to be working for Wheeldon. His 2011 ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (also a co-production between The Royal Ballet and the National Ballet) was a huge commercial success in London and Toronto. The Winter's Tale followed suit when it opened at Covent Garden last year, garnering praise across the major broadsheets. Judging by the standing ovation at the ballet's North American premiere in Toronto on Saturday night, Canadian audiences are just as enthusiastic.
As a company, the National Ballet is in top form and if you go to the ballet to delight in spirited corps work, effective storytelling, flashes of characterization and luscious, colourful sets then you won't be disappointed. The production's centrepiece, a part much lauded by British critics, is the second act set in Bohemia, where Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) and Florizel (Naoya Ebe) fall in love. There's elaborate flute music, quirky partner work with playful lifts and sequences of animated folk dancing. Everything glimmers and glistens: the parade of pastel costumes; the buttery feel of diffuse sunshine; the unwavering cheeriness of the leading couple's courtship.
But if you think that adaptation requires interpretation – not just the desire to tell a story competently in a different form, but to offer something new in this telling – then you may be less satisfied. For the most part, Wheeldon's production is so consumed with cramming in the details of plot that the onstage action feels like a manic exercise in getting to the end. And the thing about The Winter's Tale is that the plot isn't a particularly good one; this is the play where redemption is granted by having a 16-year-old statue come to life. Shakespeare notoriously cobbled-together narrative and character from all kinds of forgotten minor sources (in this case, it's thought to be Robert Greene's 1588 pastoral romance Pandosto). What makes the play so interesting is, of course, Shakespeare's superlative use of language and how this grants unparalleled insight into human psychology.
Ballet would seem well poised to depict the crippling intensity of jealousy and the indignation of being falsely accused. But instead of trying to find inventive ways of letting these emotions live inside his dancers' bodies, Wheeldon takes a symbolic, expressionistic approach to his choreography. As Leontes, Piotr Stanczyk literalizes his inner turmoil by pounding on his own shoulders and neck. In the trial scene, Hermione (Hannah Fischer) rises on and off pointe in a low arabesque as a display of her resolve. While this symbolic style sometimes offers payoff in Bob Crowley's large, domineering set pieces and Joby Talbot's Hitchcockian score in Act 1, it constrains the range, depth and inventiveness of the movement, which should really be the whole point.
The Winter's Tale continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto until Nov. 22.