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National Ballet hopes to wow New York audience with The Winter’s Tale

Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk perform in The National Ballet of Canada’s staging of The Winter’s Tale.

Karolina Kuras/The National Ballet of Canada

'The pressure is on," says Karen Kain, as the National Ballet of Canada takes its production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale to the Lincoln Center in New York.

The city is different from some of the other venues where the company has performed because "the best in the world come to perform in New York all the time," Ms. Kain, the company's artistic director, said on Wednesday, the day before its sold-out opening-night performance.

"It's possibly one of the finest ballets that's been created in my lifetime that I can ever remember seeing or being in," she said about the production by Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. "And I've had the opportunity to be in a lot of amazing work."

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Mr. Wheeldon's adaptation of Shakespeare's late romance, which combines elements of fairy tale, comedy, tragedy and fantasy, got rave reviews in London in 2014, where it was premiered by the Royal Ballet, and then when the National Ballet performed it in Toronto in 2015 and Washington earlier this year.

New York audiences and critics will provide valuable feedback because they're "a hungry, well-educated audience who really know what they're looking at," the National Ballet's executive director, Barry Hughson, said about the show that runs until Sunday as part of the prestigious Lincoln Center Festival.

Evan McKie, who dances the lead role of Leontes, added: "If you can make a New York audience super happy, then that's a pretty big deal, I think."

He said the show is particularly meaningful to him because it will be the first full-length ballet he has performed in New York. On top of that, he believes Leontes is "one of the most dramatic, nuanced roles in the ballet repertoire.

"The new adaptation puts a lot of weight on my shoulders and that's what I like," Mr. McKie said.

While The Winter's Tale is very rarely performed because it can be confusing and follows a large number of storylines, Ms. Kain said Mr. Wheeldon has made it "easy to follow."

"It's unique because the acting has to be very detailed. Every step, every gesture matters so much," said Piotr Stanczyk, who also dances the role of Leontes. "It's a complex story so to tell it right it requires a lot of attention to detail."

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Mr. Wheeldon is one of the few major choreographers of his generation who is creating original new narrative ballets, as most of the works created in the past decade have been largely one-act ballets, said Mr. Hughson. He believes that both of Mr. Wheeldon's recent ballets, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and now The Winter's Tale, have become "calling cards" for the National Ballet.

Ms. Kain said the fact that the company has been invited to perform in New York twice in the past three years is indicative of the quality of its work. In 2014, it performed Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at the Lincoln Center.

"We're deeply committed to our Toronto season and the bulk of our core activity happens in Toronto but to be able to get out once or twice a year and be seen in major cities around the globe really raises our profile and attracts more brilliant dancers and choreographers and designers," Mr. Hughson said. "It helps the creative industry be interested in coming and working in Toronto and being part of our community there."

Before these two ballets, the National Ballet had not performed in New York for 26 years, Ms. Kain said. The National Ballet Orchestra is also travelling with the company to New York for the first time in 27 years, Mr. Hughson added. This brings the total number of people travelling with the company to 173.

Ms. Kain believes the reason behind their success in New York has changed during their lengthy hiatus. She credits their past popularity to "the strength of Rudolf Nureyev's name." The renowned Russian first performed with the company in 1965 and staged a version of The Sleeping Beauty in 1972.

"Now, we're coming on the strength of work and quality of dancers," she said. "That's the difference."

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