As the Washington area braces for a blizzard, a ballet named “The Winter’s Tale” feels seasonally appropriate. But it’s a dazzling view of other weather effects, such as springtime sun and an ocean storm, that make the strongest impression in Christopher Wheeldon’s account of Shakespeare’s complicated romance, which the National Ballet of Canada performs through Sunday.
The Kennedy Center Opera House stage has seldom taken on such dramatic visual transformations as it does in this ballet. Wheeldon created the three-act, nearly three-hour-long production in 2014 for both the Royal Ballet, which premiered it that year, and the Canadian company, which performed it first just two months ago. “The Winter’s Tale” followed Wheeldon’s colorful if lightweight “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which he also made for both companies. (The National Ballet of Canada danced “Alice” here three years ago.)
Happily, “The Winter’s Tale” is a step up from “Alice” in emotional depth and the satisfying sweep of Wheeldon’s choreography. The ballet is set in vague locales: Bohemia, which is perhaps what is now part of the Czech Republic, perhaps not, as well as an unnamed island thereabouts. Wheeldon has helped himself to wide cultural references, which he whips into a beautifully rich palette of dancing. Sometimes the steps look a bit Hungarian-folksy, at others they’re quite contemporary, and at times I glimpsed a little South Asian blend of softness and percussion.
Wheeldon has a light touch throughout, with an emphasis on long lines and delicate, precise shapes. The National Ballet dancers carry off this sophisticated style magnificently.
With so much beauty on view, it’s a shame that the ballet feels long and confusing. Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot have streamlined Shakespeare’s narrative of a love triangle gone horribly wrong, and an innocent woman destroyed, and her abandoned child who unknowingly brings about the miraculous happy end. But you’re strongly advised to read the long synopsis before the curtain opens.
Wheeldon’s strengths are in the ensemble scenes: the courtroom pageantry, the island’s sun-soaked festivities. With all the hard looks and arm-gesturing — Ho ho! Here is the king! — one dramatic moment varies little from another.
Hannah Fischer’s Hermione uses her lean, ribbonlike form to suggest fragility and purity. Piotr Stanczyk gives his Leontes a brutal edge. As the grown daughter Perdita, Jillian Vanstone adds charisma and warmth to what could have been a one-note take on youthful innocence.
Talbot’s music borrows from many references, like the choreography; a little Asian, a little Central European, a little medieval. But it never immerses us in a world of feeling, and so it doesn’t help Wheeldon’s task of pulling us along in an emotional experience. Bob Crowley’s lovely sets and costumes look lush but don’t get in the way of the dancing. The designer and puppeteer Basil Twist is credited with the “silk effects design,” which produces billowing waves and ship’s sails. If the story doesn’t sweep you away, that silk is pretty magical.
The National Ballet of Canada performs “The Winter’s Tale,” through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Visit www.kennedy-center.org.