The Magical Transformations of ‘The Winter’s Tale’


“The Winter’s Tale,” one of Shakespeare’s final works, is an odd play: a devastating portrait of jealousy that ends in redemption, and a changeling’s tale that moves from joy to tragedy and back again. Over the course of its five acts, oracles are ignored and then fulfilled; a man is mauled by a bear; and a statue comes to life.

Not an obvious choice for a new ballet. But then again, epic emotions and magical goings-on are not so rare in dance. Perhaps this affinity for magic is what persuaded Christopher Wheeldon that it might be worth a try. His three-act version, created for the Royal Ballet in 2014 as a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada, is being brought to New York by that Canadian company as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

Mr. Wheeldon’s adaptation involved some serious pruning, yet it hews surprisingly close to the play’s themes. Strangely enough, the translation from words to movement has made tricky passages easier to swallow, particularly the magical ending.

As the ballet opens, we see a prologue in which two young princes, Polixenes of Bohemia and Leontes of Sicilia, play together. Soon, they are replaced by their older selves, now kings of their countries. One of them (Leontes) meets a girl (Hermione); they get married. All this takes less than a minute. Sometimes, pantomime can be more efficient than words.

After many years apart, Polixenes returns to Sicilia to visit his friend. During his stay, Hermione becomes pregnant with her second child. In this clip below, we see the three friends happily dancing together on the eve of Polixenes’ departure, nine months later — note the large belly. The dancers are Evan McKie (Leontes), Jurgita Dronina (Hermione) and Brendan Saye (Polixenes), all of the National Ballet of Canada.

The courtiers dance an upscale version of a Bohemian folk dance (a Wheeldon invention) in honor of Polixenes’ home. Mr. Wheeldon has placed the instruments, which include an accordion and a dulcimer, onstage with the dancers. (The score was commissioned from Joby Talbot, with whom he collaborated on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”) It is winter, as we can see from the snowy backdrop.

The dancers are in couples; they clasp hands and bend deeply from the waist. Polixenes pulls the pregnant Hermione into the dance. Then Leontes joins in, and the three dance together, the picture of fraternal affection. When the music changes, Hermione responds to her baby’s kick by placing first Polixenes’ hand, then her husband’s, on her belly. A doubt is planted in Leontes’ mind — is this really his child? This moment isn’t in the play, but, as Mr. Wheeldon said recently in New York, “I wanted to have a visual trigger” for Leontes’ jealousy, “and that was it.”

After this brief interval of happiness, Leontes goes mad with jealousy. He collapses in on himself and breaks out in spasms, as if he had drunk poison. Shakespeare uses the image of a spider as a metaphor for the evil Leontes believes he has seen:

There may be in the cup
a spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
and yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected …
I have drunk, and seen the spider.

In this clip, from the Royal Ballet production, Edward Watson plays Leontes, who is deformed by jealous pangs. At 0:17, you’ll see the spider, as his fingers crawl up his body to his brain.

The scene takes place in a statue gallery — in the play, it’s a garden — in which Polixenes and the pregnant Hermione take a stroll. With the designer Bob Crowley’s help, Mr. Wheeldon has taken a single image from Shakespeare — a statue, featured in the final scene — and turned it into a visual motif that runs through the ballet, preparing us for a Pygmalion-like transformation. Leontes, who follows the two, is convinced that he sees them locked in a lustful embrace.

The consequences of the king’s jealousy are disastrous. His wife is tried publicly for adultery and dies — or so we think — of shame. But with a little magic, and some trickery, not all is lost. Leontes is forgiven. (Spoiler alert!) As he prays at his wife’s statue, Hermione comes back to life. “Oh, she’s warm!” he exclaims in the play. She descends from her pedestal, and we see husband and wife together for the first time since the opening scene. Their pas de deux is built out of pure, supple, singing lines.

At one point, Leontes turns Hermione in his arms and she dives toward the floor; as she emerges on the other side of him, she appears stronger and lighter, as if freed from a burden. It’s an image of strength born out of forgiveness. Despite all the suffering he has wrought, love endures.

A very balletic ending.

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