This is the story of how “The Winter’s Tale,” one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays to stage, became a critically acclaimed ballet that will open at the Kennedy Center this week. The story begins — as cultural collaborations so often do — with a choreographer and theater director walking into a pub.
The director, Nicholas Hytner, does not recall the exact venue, but he remembers having a drink with his friend, the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and that they debated which story Wheeldon should adapt into his next ballet.
“I was looking to take on a bit more challenging story,” Wheeldon said, speaking from his London flat last week. “Something with a bit more meat.”
At the time, Hytner was still the director of London’s National Theatre while Wheeldon was fresh off the blockbuster success of “Alice in Wonderland,” a co-production between London’s Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. He was not yet basking in the Broadway glow of his Tony-nominated musical “An American in Paris,” which opened in New York last year. Hytner suggested that for his next full-length ballet, the choreographer should tackle a play that has stymied theater directors — him included — for 400 years: Shakespeare’s late romance, “The Winter’s Tale.”
“It occurred to me that as far as I knew, the play probably hadn’t been the basis of a ballet before,” Hytner recalled recently via email. “That its range of emotion, its discovery of the miraculous in the mundane, its faith (though tentative) in the possibilities of redemption, its variety of settings might all be suitable for ballet.”
“A Winter’s Tale” will receive its American premiere Tuesday night, when the National Ballet of Canada opens a six-day run at the Kennedy Center, fresh off the ballet’s critically hailed Toronto debut last fall. The Royal Ballet presented the world premiere in 2014 and will reprise it this spring. On both continents, “Winter’s Tale” has been a commercial and critical success. But were it not for Hytner and another theatrical luminary on this side of the Atlantic, the ballet would not exist.
“I was not entirely convinced initially,” Wheeldon remembers. After having drinks with Hytner, he sat down to read it. Or tried to. “I found it quite hard going on the page, actually,” he said. “But, I could see why Nick was so buzzed about seeing the play told through movement. If you knock away the language and boil it down to the bare essence, there is a really a great story there.”
“Winter’s Tale” is about the dire consequences of jealously and the difficult road to redemption. The play opens with Leontes, king of Sicilia, hosting his childhood friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, for a long overdue diplomatic visit. By Scene 2, Leontes is convinced that his wife Hermione has feelings for Polixenes that are “too hot, too hot!” even though each character has uttered only a handful of lines so far.
“One of the key points of advice that Nick gave me was, ‘Do not try to explain the jealousy,’ ” Wheeldon recalled. There’s no reason given in the text. In a courtly party scene, it’s apparent that Leontes suspects Hermione is pregnant with his friend’s child when the lead female dancer simultaneously places both men’s hands on her belly. The lights dim, there’s a rumble of timpani, followed by an eerie flute siren song and descending trills from the violins. (Composer Joby Talbot wrote the evocative score.) All other dancers onstage except for Leontes freeze. What follows is an angular, agonized solo featuring a man gripped by sudden madness.
Wheeldon took his cue from Shakespeare’s line that Leontes feels as if he nearly swallowed a spider in a cup. There’s no reason for the madness, but there is a method to depict it. “We used keys within the text to unlock the movement vocabulary,” Wheeldon said.
The choreographer dealt with “The Winter’s Tale’s” other “problems” through a series of storyline cuts, character consolidations and genius stagecraft. Hytner made himself available as a consultant. Bob Crowley, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare, created the sets, and puppeteer Basil Twist designed billowy curtains used for special effects, including a tempestuous sea and the bear that appears in Act III.
Both the storm and the angry bruin can be tough to stage and can unintentionally come off as slapstick comedy. “Exit, pursued by a bear,” is the seemingly ludicrous stage direction, just before a main character is devoured offstage.
The act is set in Bohemia, and immediately after the bear incident, a band of shepherds finds an abandoned baby on the beach. Hermione’s exiled infant princess will grow into Perdita, a Bohemian peasant heartthrob. Some directors, like Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn, go for broke, embrace the bizarre transition and shock audiences with a change in set designs when they come back from intermission.
“Who even knows where Bohemia is,” Kahn quipped. “I set it in Switzerland once and had everybody yodeling.”
An ardent fan of ballet who has followed Wheeldon’s work ever since the young Brit was still a dancer at New York City Ballet, Kahn has long been looking forward to seeing “Winter’s Tale” performed without Shakespeare’s tricky text.
“This is probably one of few successful ‘Winter’s Tales’ there are, because it’s a very difficult play, although it is one of my favorite plays,” Kahn said. “The last scene in one of the most beautiful he ever wrote.”
That poetically beautiful last scene poses another problem. The action returns to Sicily, where for 16 years, Leontes has been mourning Hermione’s death. At the urging of Paulina, Hermione’s lady in waiting, Leontes shows Perdita a statue of the mother she believes is long dead.
“The so-called statue scene is one that people think that people write about all the time,” says Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Library. Both directors and scholars have many theories about what’s going on when the statue begins to speak, although famously, she directs her lines only to Perdita.
“It’s the magic of the theater, and also of the audience, hoping against hope that Hermione might still be alive,” Witmore explained.
In Shakespeare’s day, Witmore suspects the actor portraying the statue would have stood in a recess against the back wall above the stage. Modern lighting and effects allow directors to play with how supernatural the magic should appear. Scholars may disagree, but in Wheeldon’s mind, and his ballet, there’s little ambiguity in the ending and the clear message of forgiveness it presents.
“Christopher somehow, with all his talent, gets to the heart of the story,” says Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet.
Just as Wheeldon had to overcome his concerns about adapting the play, Kain also needed convincing before she joined the Royal Ballet in co-commissioning the choreographer’s project. Kain sought the advice of her friend, the great Canadian actress Martha Henry, who had played Paulina and many Shakespeare roles over the course of her five-decade career at the Stratford Festival.
“Oh, it’s perfect,” Kain recalled her friend saying. “That gave me the courage to go forward and commit.”
“Visually, there is so much richness in (‘Winter’s Tale’),” Kain said. “They were right. It’s perfect for a really dramatic ballet.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
The National Ballet of Canada: Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale. About 2 1/2 hours. Jan. 19 to Jan. 24 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets $39 to $149. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.