It turns out that William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” an odd and improbable play, seems more convincing when translated into the language of dance.
For this felicitous outcome, viewers may thank choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, now an artistic associate of Britain’s Royal Ballet, which commissioned him to choreograph the piece and will broadcast a recorded performance of “The Winter’s Tale” in movie houses tonight. (For more information and to find out where the movie is playing, click here.) This event will be the first of three Royal Ballet broadcasts also including “Swan Lake” (March 19) and “La Fille Mal Gardée” (May 6), the cinema season paving the way for a live and in-person tour by the company this summer.
Seen at a preview screening on Feb. 11, “The Winter’s Tale” is primarily a vehicle for its cast of exceptional dancer-actors. First among these is the brilliant Edward Watson, a protean figure whose past credits include the agonized lead in “The Metamorphosis” and the fidgety White Rabbit in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Here he plays Leontes, the king of Sicilia, who loses his sanity when he imagines that his loyal consort, Hermione, has betrayed him with his childhood friend, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Fingers twiddling weirdly as Leontes recoils from touching the pregnant Hermione’s belly, Watson morphs from a loving husband into a sweaty, slithering psycho. Nothing good can come of this jealousy, and despite the obvious purity of Lauren Cuthbertson’s Hermione, mayhem ensues. At least Othello and Desdemona didn’t have kids.
Then, in a happenstance manner more characteristic of Byzantine novels than Shakespeare plays, it all works out. Leontes’ and Hermione’s abandoned baby grows up to become the beautiful shepherdess Perdita, who falls in love with Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel. After a rousing Bohemian dance party and an exciting chase over the high seas, the lovers take refuge with none other than Leontes, who, in the absence of psychiatric medication, is conducted back to reality by Paulina, the wisest member of the royal staff. Hermione miraculously returns to life, and despite ineffable traces of hurt we feel reassured that all will be well going forward.
Wheeldon’s choreography is more contemporary than classical, revealing a fondness for angular profiles and darting, jack-knife leaps, the angles juxtaposed with circles traced on the floor. Bodies can fit together like puzzle pieces, and the characters communicate in semaphoric gestures. In this geometric world, with legs frequently turned out in boxy “fourth” positions, a dancer’s line assumes greater-than-ever importance. So does the artist’s ability to humanize the choreography with intens, but delicately nuanced expressions.
Cuthbertson succeeds on all counts, her line soaring, her face radiant and her pointes sensitive and tactile — even when Hermione’s distended belly suggests she is dangerously close to giving birth. Zenaida Yanowsky makes a wonderful Paulina, febrile in her anger yet somber in forbearance. As Polixenes, Federico Bonelli presents a jovial foil to Watson’s moody Leontes, with Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae suitably cuddly and energetic as the ingénues, Perdita and Florizel.
Joby Talbot has composed the serviceable score, terrifying or tender as needed, and reliably prodding the action forward with its insistent pulse. The scenery is alive with billowing draperies by Basil Twist that contrast with the frozen works of sculpture and painting that decorate Leontes’ castle. Designer Bob Crowley supplied these objets d’art, along with sinister staircases and the richly patterned, tribal rugs of a faux Bohemia.
A major addition to the ballet repertoire, “The Winter’s Tale” is not to be missed.
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