National Ballet of Canada Review: The Winter’s Tale

How does someone get into a state of mind where the seed of jealousy can take root even if it is completely unwarranted? Once the seed is planted, is there anyway to stop it growing, or will it inevitably destroy the very thing you love? Then if you are the wronged one and had your love destroyed by the one you loved, would you forgive him/her if (s)he repented painfully over the years? And would you so easily accept strangers into your heart as family if all you knew was a family of a different home? These were some of the questions I’m still pondering after watching this terrific ballet adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. (Here is the synopsis of the story, as structured for this ballet. )

If you like theatre and dance, even if you’re not particularly fond of ballet, you really must to go see the National Ballet of Canada’s co-production with The Royal Ballet of The Winter’s Tale as choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The current run by the National Ballet of Canada is over today, but it surely will make a comeback in the seasons to come. It would be crazy for NBOC to not immediately remount a production as successful as this one, after such a short one-week run. There are many things to commend about this production, but the one thing that is apparent is how conscious Wheeldon is to what would attract new audiences to story ballets. Just as in Alice in Wonderland, the theatricality, production design, and music are really designed to entice the audience to pay attention to the truly wonderful dancing on stage.


There are many outstanding choreographic moments in this show that I’ll remember. A few off the top of my head:

  • The Act 1 duets between Leontes and Hermione, where the same motif is repeated, but getting progressively more sinister and violent from his part as the act progresses.
  • The solo of Leontes as the jealousy takes hold. The movement is twisted, tortured
  • Hermione’s solo during her trial is beautiful, lyrical, and so lonely as she pleads her innocence.
  • The amazing group peasant dances in Act 2.  There is so much joy and exuberance in these sequences that it made me smile the whole while through it. There are so many different shapes and lines made, with very interesting body shapes and movements, that it’s just visually stunning. It’s really a shame that music continues moving so much that there isn’t any slight pauses in the music or the dancing to allow invite the audience to applaud. (I know, we can applaud at any time, but our Toronto matinee audience is generally shy and overly polite…and I don’t feel brave enough to start the applause myself)
  • The really unique positioning in the pas de deux with Perdita and Florizel. In a weird way, I would make the analogy that her body was positioned as if he was holding her like a french horn, with her torso curled up, her head being mouthpiece, and her semi-split legs being the bell of the horn, if the bell was longer and reached up to go across his shoulders. It’s a visual I’ll not forget.

Dance Performances

November 21, 2pm cast:

  • Leontes – Evan McKie
  • Hermione – Jurgita Dronina
  • Perdita – Rui Huang
  • Paulina – Svetlana Lunkina
  • Polixenes – Brendan Saye
  • Florizel – Skylar Campbell

I believe this was my first real chance to see Evan McKie dancing in a lead role since he joined NBOC. Each production typically has multiple casts, so the luck of which cast performed on Saturday afternoons (our season tickets), combined with his injuries in the last couple of years, made this an exciting performance for me. He definitely did not disappoint. Leontes is not a showy technical role, but it’s a showy dramatic acting role. Physically embodying the jealousy eating at him bit by bit until his outlook and his physical bearing is twisted. In his performance there was palatable tension and emotion on stage, especially in the separate duets he has with Hermione and Paulina.

I was also really curious and excited to see newly joined principle dancer Jurgita Dronina as Hermione. She played Hermione with assurance and yet lightness. Her solo at her trial was one obvious highlight; she executed that difficult choreography flawlessly so you didn’t even realize how difficult it was. The other big highlight for me was her duets with McKie as her desperation of the situation grows. The emotion and drama between them were very realistic.

Svetlana Lunkina as Paulina just made me even more of a fan of hers. There’s something about her arms that’s just mesmerizing. And she then has the serious acting chops to portray a woman with all these conflicting feelings: anger and despair toward the man who caused the death of beloved Hermione and her children, and indirectly her husband, but also the sense of duty to continue to serve her master of the kingdom she belongs to.

I only wished the same assuredness of these principle dancers would have rubbed off more on the dancers playing Perdita (the lost princess 16 years later) and Florizel (the prince she falls in love with). The choreography for them in the second act is tremendously difficult, that is for sure, and the audience could tell of the effort involved. You could see that Rui Huang was absolutely concentrating on the steps, but that meant the acting of the part of the young lover was sacrificed. There wasn’t any chemistry between her and Skylar Campbell as Prince Florizel. Things like reacting to each other’s touch, or small body language nuances that demonstrated that she was aware of where he was on stage regardless of whether she was looking at him or not…those were missing. The kisses felt choreographed, instead of a natural thing for these two characters to do. Because I couldn’t believe in the two of them as lovers, it really eroded the magic from the first act.

Production notes

  • The original music by Joby Talbot really helped tell the story, in particular where bits of discordant tones creep into the main melody to signal the change in Leontes’ inner mind. It was definitely clear that this is the same composer as Alice in Wonderland though. There were hints of that score throughout this production—the use of mallet instruments, the kind of wormy sound of the oboe or clarinet paired with the violins. I thought the violin solo in Act 3 as Leontes mourns at Hermione’s grave was absolutely beautiful and I was disappointed that it was so short. I would have loved to have that bit extended. The Act 2 peasant dances were also able to be so joyous because of the great music.
  • The sets and props really helped set the tone between the stark and austere realms of Sicilia, and the warm brightness of Bohemia. The silk effects to convey the rough seas, the sail of the boat, and the bear that attacks Antigonus (as per the famous stage direction of Shakespeare) were brilliant. And the grand tree that is the centerpiece of the second act really is impressive as it spans the entire width of the stage, adorned with hanging jewels and doodads.
  • There were parts of the third act that seemed truncated. For example, when Perdita is revealed to be the lost daughter, how her adoptive father and brother react was kind of skipped over. If there was a reconciliation or apology sought from Polixenes to his son Florizel, then I missed it. And after the wedding scene, it cut really abruptly to the statue gallery. I would have liked another few bars of music for the action on the stage to better transition to that location.
  • The costuming was gorgeous throughout. The detail and the flow of the fabric particularly for the ladies dresses were just outstanding. The only slight distraction was how the purple silk dress worn by Perdita really shows all the sweat. You’d think they would have remembered that from the Alice in Wonderland.

Overall, the story has really been translated amazingly well for the dance stage. The plot line is quite clear, there is lots of drama and action, and really great solo roles for the company dancers. I’m really looking forward to seeing it again the next time they put it on, and keen to see other casts perform the same roles.

What an amazing start to the 2015-16 season!