‘The Winter’s Tale.’ The Royal Ballet in Australia

6 July 2017 (matinee and evening), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

There is much to admire about The Winter’s Tale, Christopher Wheeldon’s balletic translation of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. For a start, the mood is often absolutely gripping—often in an ‘edge of the seat’ manner. It is also just brilliantly performed by artists of the Royal Ballet in both a technical sense, and in terms of the emotional involvement of everyone on stage. In addition, the visual effects, especially the use of designer Basil Twist’s painted silks that dropped down to indicate the sea or to allow for a change of place, were captivating, as was the use of film footage throughout.

It is a complex story about the relations between the Kings of Sicilia and Bohemia, the breakdown of their friendship and the final reconciliation, along with all the intrigue and jealousy, the sea journeys, and the chance occurrences that attend the breakdown. But the clarity with which the story unfolded was outstanding. That the story was so easily understood was partly as a result of the choreography and partly as a result of how Wheeldon had selected events from the play and added links between them. It was exhilarating to see, for example, how Wheeldon handled the passage of time before the events he had chosen to focus on had taken place. In the opening prologue we watched as two young princes, initially playing together, were replaced by two grown men. It was a simple ploy but so effective in showing, in addition to the passage of time, that the friendship between the two kings had developed since childhood, which is why we encounter them together in Act I in the palace of Leontes, King of Sicilia, initially enjoying each other’s company.

Act I was the strongest of the three acts and a clear highlight was the choreography for Leontes (Bennet Gartside, matinee and evening). When he began to suspect that the baby being carried by his pregnant wife, Hermione (Marianela Nuñez, matinee and evening), was not his but that of Polixenes, his friend and King of Bohemia, his rage and jealousy were expressed through angular movements, clenched hands, slinking movements, and depraved twists of the body.

Laura Morera (evening) gave a strong performance as Paulina, head of Hermione’s household, especially in her attack on Leontes as he banished Hermione, and when he could not bear to look at the newly born child, Perdita. Nuñez as Hermione danced with refinement and accepted her banishment with the grace and strength of a queen. I admired, too, the motherly affection she showed to her son Mamillius in the early stages of Act I.

But for me the standout performance in Act I came from Ryoichi Hirano (evening) as Polixenes. He held my attention from the moment he came on stage and I loved the way he executed the choreography, highlighting as he did the rather more eccentric choreography he was given as the King of Bohemia. In fact, his emphasis on those choreographic elements that seemed more folkloric than those given to the residents of Sicilia foreshadowed what was to take place in Act II, which was set in Bohemia. In addition, his duet with Hermione, as Leontes lurked in the background or peered from behind statues, was passionately danced and had sexual overtones to the extent that it made Leontes’ jealousy seem to have some basis in truth. Such movement by Hirano highlighted Gartside’s unsavoury loiterings and suggested what was going through Leontes’ mind.

In Act II the dancing didn’t falter. Beatriz Stix-Brunell (evening) as Perdita and Vadim Muntagirov (evening) as Florizel danced sumptuously, with Muntagirov soaring across the stage and sweeping Stix-Brunell off her feet (literally as well as figuratively). But again my attention was drawn to Hirano who made me smile as he attempted to disguise himself in shepherd’s clothing to spy on his son Florizel who was courting Perdita. That hat didn’t seem to fit his kingly head and he seemed a little bamboozled by it all.

Wheeldon’s choreography for the groups of shepherds and shepherdesses in this act was pleasant enough and certainly was in folkloric mode. But after such a powerful Act I, it seemed all too much like a traditional three-act ballet where at some stage everyone has to have a jolly good time.

Back in Sicilia in Act III, conflicts and concerns are resolved and there is eventually a marriage (I think—everyone was dressed in white) between Perdita and Florizel. But the most interesting part of this act concerned the return of Hermione, disguised at first as a statue. It made for an engaging re-connection between Hermione and Leontes, gently manouevered by Paulina. In fact there was a curious connection between Paulina and Leontes who seemed to lean on her (in fact choreographically he did lean on her) for support at the beginning of the act. But his contrition was made clear and he danced with Hermione in a final pas de deux.

Marianela Nuñez as Hermione and Bennet Gartside as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, Act III. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © ROH/Tristram Kenton

As in Act II, the dancing in Act III was pretty much faultless and a pleasure to watch. But again it was Hirado as Polixenes who attracted my attention. I admired the way he stormed in looking for Florizel in order to drag him back to Bohemia and declined at first Leontes’ attempts at reconciliation, but then mellowed when he realised that Perdita had royal blood. It was a powerful performance from him from start to finish.

The Royal Ballet’s touring program presented audiences with an interesting juxtaposition of ballets. Both Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale are contemporary (that is of today) productions but The Winter’s Tale remains within a certain traditional mode—a three-act narrative, moving along logically, and having some balletic predictability about its structure. On the other hand Woolf Works pushes boundaries and makes demands of us. We have to suspend many preconceived ideas about how to see and think about ballet. Both modes of presentation have a place but, while I sat transfixed by The Winter’s Tale, twice, what Wayne McGregor presented in Woolf Works is how I want dance to move ahead.

Michelle Potter, 9 July 2017

Featured image: Set for Act II, The Winter’s Tale. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © ROH/Johan Persson

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

‘Woolf Works.’ The Royal Ballet

11 February 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The printed program for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works gives the piece a subtitle: A Triptych. It is a perfect subtitle since Woolf Works consists of three separate pieces but, like a religious triptych, each separate part tells us something about an overall subject. In the case of Woolf Works this overall subject concerns the innovative, poetic writing of the early twentieth century novelist Virginia Woolf. And the work begins with the voice of Virginia Woolf talking about language in a recording made for the BBC in 1937. Her talk was called ‘On craftsmanship’ and, as she speaks, writing (hers presumably) appears in white on a black front screen. As her voice continues, the writing transforms itself into various white shapes. The lighting changes and the screen lifts. The first section begins.

Although the informative program, innovative in concept and design, never seeks to say what Woolf Works is ‘about’, for me McGregor brilliantly distills each of the Woolf novels he has chosen to work with into certain intrinsic elements. The first movement, I now, I then, inspired by the novel Mrs Dalloway, shows us the changing nature of relationships across a lifetime, even though the novel takes place in just one day. The second section, based on Orlando and called Becomings, examines the trajectory of the universe across time, just as Orlando takes place over several centuries. It might be called a study in time travel and has something approaching science fiction as an intrinsic element. The third section, Tuesday, is inspired by The Waves and seeks to show us the concept of inevitability.

Of the three sections I now, I then seems to me to be the strongest. If you know the novel, you will recognise the main characters of Clarissa Dalloway; Jenny Seton, the close friend whom Clarissa famously kisses; Peter Walsh, the man Clarissa didn’t marry, perhaps to her ongoing regret; and Septimus Warren Smith, the shell-shocked former soldier who eventually commits suicide, never being able to overcome his thoughts about the death of a soldier friend in World War I. But such knowledge isn’t entirely necessary as I now, I then stands on its own as a work about relationships of many and varied kinds.

In I now, I then, Alessandra Ferri plays a meditative, slightly distant Clarissa, lost in her thoughts. It was a pleasure to see her back onstage. In another cast, however, I saw Mara Galeazzi in the role and I preferred her performance. She seemed more emotionally involved in the role and, without wishing to detract from Ferri’s strong technical performance, I admired the way Galeazzi was able to embody the choreography, giving it quite beautiful shape and fluidity. The various pas de deux between Clarissa and the two men in her life (played by Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis in one cast and Ryoichi Hirano and Tomas Mock in the other) were highlights in both casts.

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Clarissa as a younger woman and Jenny her friend, played by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Francesca Hayward (and in the other cast Yasmine Naghdi and Mayara Magri), had some gorgeous choreography, sometimes performed in unison, often fast and joyous, and always full of the pleasures of youth and friendship. They engaged too with Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest, while the older Clarissa stood thoughtfully in the background. Again pleasure in relating to others was at the heart of the choreography.

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Another exceptionally powerful performance came from Edward Watson as Septimus, whose problematic mental state was made clear as he executed the writhing, twisted choreography.

Strong visual elements in the form of film footage (film designer Ravi Deepres) washed across the performing space and over the set, which consisted of the perimeters of three large, wooden, movable square structures. The footage showed London scenes from the 1920s and, sometimes, the garden of Virginia Woolf’s home and, with Max Richter’s score occasionally interrupted by the sound of Big Ben chiming, the setting was an evocative one.

Becomings was distinguished by some astonishing lighting effects from Lucy Carter. Although her work is an important and quite beautiful element in all three sections, in Becomings it is nothing short of sensational—as innovative as anything Woolf wrote. It sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage.

Among this spectacular light (and darkness as the stage is often submerged in near blackness), dancers appear, clad in an assortment of black and gold costumes that range from Elizabethan garb—Eric Underwood at times wears an Elizabethan-style dress that would have delighted Queen Elizabeth I—to contemporary attire (costume design Moritz Junge). There is some spectacular dancing. Legs stretch and extend in seemingly impossible ways and partnering sometimes takes the breath away. Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae stand out, especially in an early pas de deux where the gender of Orlando is explored (perhaps?). Both also stand out elsewhere in this second section, as does Sarah Lamb who always looks good executing McGregor’s flashy, super-extended style. 

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in 'Becomings' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in Becomings from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Despite the dancing and the mesmerising lighting display, Becomings did not have the same attraction for me as I now, I then. It was harder to feel where Woolf fitted in for one thing, even given the emphasis at times on gender issues, which Woolf explores in Orlando. But then perhaps the link is that Woolf was always experimenting, exploring, finding innovative ways to use language, as McGregor and his collaborators are examining how collaboration across the arts can give new insights?

The third and final section, Tuesday, begins with half the stage space being taken up by film footage of very slowly breaking waves. A voice-over reads Woolf’s suicide note left for her husband before she stepped into the river Ouse, her pockets weighed down with stones. After the glitz and glamour of Becomings, Tuesday was quietly reflective and we felt the slow motion of the waves and the inevitability of time passing.

Clarissa appears alone on stage at the beginning of Tuesday. But her memories continue to fill her mind. Children appear from the darkness beneath the images of waves. They run to her. She is joined by Sarah Lamb (as her sister, Vanessa Bell?). Voices are heard over the music and the names of Vanessa’s children are mentioned—Quentin, Angelica, Julian. The corps de ballet dances in wave-like movements. Clarissa stands and watches. Bonelli joins her and they are left alone. Clarissa slips to the floor and the waves retreat.

Scene from 'Tuesday' in ''Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Scene from Tuesday in Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

I found Woolf Works a hugely moving work. I’m sure I missed many of the nuances. But I love that I could make up an interpretation (my own if not McGregor’s) that sent me out of the theatre fulfilled and wanting to see the work many more times. It is an exceptional collaboration with intelligent minds behind it, including that of a dramaturg (Uzma Hameed). This is how dance should be.

Woolf Works is directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor and first took the stage in 2015. Its revival in 2017 is part of the Royal Ballet’s celebration of McGregor’s ten years as the Royal’s resident choreographer and the work will be part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire on its tour to Australia in June/July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 13 February 2017

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

‘Giselle’. The Royal Ballet

28 March 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I have been a fan of Peter Wright’s production of Giselle, which dates back to 1985, ever since I saw it in Australia in 2002 during the Royal Ballet’s tour that year. I like that Wright’s research into the historical background of the ballet has informed the work, especially in relation to character development. The current season by the Royal Ballet confirms my conviction that Wright’s production is an exceptional one.

Sarah Lamb as Giselle and Ryoichi Hirano as Albrecht perhaps don’t reach the emotional heights of others I have seen in these roles, but technically they danced beautifully: their Act II pas de deux in particular was quite breathtaking. Hirano’s partnering skills were remarkable and he made those beautiful high lifts looked effortless—Giselle became the weightless sylph she is meant to be. And the pair’s final parting in Act II, as Giselle disappeared into her grave, was as moving as one could hope for.

In addition, and thankfully, there was no emphasis on the execution of steps for the sake of steps in the course of Albrecht having to dance on and on. The choreography was used to convey the dramatic line, although of course the steps were beautifully performed. In fact I found it mightily impressive that the whole of Albrecht’s ‘dance until you drop’ section flowed on so smoothly and logically from the earlier sequence when Hilarion was sentenced to die, something that I can’t remember ever seeing so clearly before.

Being used to seeing a peasant pas de deux in other productions, the pas de six in Act I was something of a curiosity for me, which I can’t remember from 2002. But it was nicely danced and I especially admired a gentleman with dark curly hair who seemed to be someone other than those mentioned on the cast sheet. Whoever he was, he performed with wonderful attack.

The Royal Ballet’s corps danced strongly throughout. As peasants in Act I they were boisterously beautiful, as Wilis in Act II they were both mysteriously supernatural in their movements and heartlessly cold in their damnation of Hilarion and Albrecht.

John Macfarlane’s design does not pretend to be prettily peasant. The cottages in Act I are rough, the forest in Act II is wild, and it makes for just the right visual effect. And to my surprise and pleasure (I had forgotten it from previous viewings), the village folk in Act I didn’t all wear exactly the same costume.

The one thing that bothered me was that the long Act I mime scene from Berthe (Elizabeth McGorian) focused on explaining the legend of the Wilis without, to my mind, relating it enough to Giselle in particular. Berthe seemed to be talking to everyone except Giselle. On the other hand, it was interesting to see how class distinctions between the village folk and the Duke and his entourage were developed. I have never seen such a Bathilde as that of Sian Murphy who seemed positively dismissive of the peasants. And, as ever, the printed program was full of extra information including an excellent interview with Peter Wright and an explanation of the mime scene mentioned above.

All in all a very satisfying production with so much of interest that I could see it again and again.

Michelle Potter, 29 March 2016

Also as ever, this review is not accompanied by images as no one at the Royal Ballet seems inclined even to acknowledge my requests over the years for images, let alone agree to supply any.