‘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

Ashton mixed bill. The Royal Ballet

18 October 2014 (evening), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The prospect of four works by Frederick Ashton on the one program is something that fills those not brought up in an Ashton environment with anticipation. Of the four works on the Royal Ballet’s recent program, Scènes de Ballet, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Symphonic Variations and A Month in the Country, I had never seen Five Brahms Waltzes and had seen the others on only one previous occasion each.

Symphonic Variations, led by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov supported by Yasmine Naghdi and James Hay and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer, perhaps moved me most. What clarity and fluidity those six dancers brought to the work. It was a breathtaking performance where everyone was a star, although perhaps it was Muntagirov, with his elegant bearing and his exceptional technical accomplishments, who attracted my attention most. But the ballet as a whole was beautifully danced to an elegant rendition by pianist Paul Stobart of Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations. And I had forgotten how fresh and entrancing Sophie Fedorovitch’s decor is—a spring green, box-like space with fine black lines weaving a flowing pattern across the backdrop and flats. It was a sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty of movement. No in depth analysis can ever do it justice.

Five Brahms Waltzes was danced by Helen Crawford, replacing an injured Lauren Cuthbertson. The sense of gravity and weight in her dancing in the first and second waltzes contrasted nicely with her performance of the third waltz in which she manipulated a soaring rectangle of silk. Equally impressive was the contrast between a somewhat fierce fourth waltz and the gentle fifth with its rose petals falling liberally from her arms. I loved too the contrast between those light skips à la Isadora and the lower, almost crouching poses with fists clenched that appeared every so often. It was a finely thought through performance.

Scènes de ballet, which opened the program, was distinguished by the presence of Sarah Lamb as the ballerina. The quality of her dancing was especially noticeable in her main solo with its loosely swinging wrists and arms and lyrical movement of the whole body. But this ballet really needs to have every performer dancing with exactness. I missed straight lines, equal spacing and sameness in height of legs. The geometry of the work falls apart without such precision. And it was a disappointment to see Steven McRae, who partnered Lamb, begin with such promise—those sharp turns of the head and the pride with which he held his upper body were mesmerising—only to falter often as the work progressed.

The program closed with A Month in the Country and I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography.

It was a real pleasure to see four quite different Ashton works brought together in one program but it was curious to see how those little runs on pointe kept appearing over and over. I was almost waiting for the next one by the time we reached A Month in the Country.

Michelle Potter, 22 October 2014

‘Swan Lake’. English National Ballet

The English National Ballet has just concluded a season of Swan Lake that can only be described as a triumph. As much as I admire, and love watching Graeme Murphy’s production of Swan Lake, and this is the Swan Lake Australians now see regularly, there remains deep down a craving for the traditional version, and this is just what ENB delivered.

ENB’s current Swan Lake is choreographed by Derek Deane. This season gave us not his probably better known in-the-round version seen in Australia some years ago, but a glorious, dramaturgically strong, proscenium version that moved from palace to lakeside and back again capturing attention from the moment the curtain rose until it fell.

A beautifully rehearsed and coached corps de ballet danced to perfection in the white acts, moving as one and conjuring up a sense of another world. The dancers were just as impressive as courtiers, always aware of the underlying narrative, never standing around uncertain of how to behave. From a more technical point of view, the corps demonstrated in particular just how expressive the upper body can be when actually used. Such fluidity above the waist seems a little rare to me these days.

As well as dancing brilliantly, the soloists and principals brought to the stage quite outstanding skills of characterisation. This was a production where Rothbart was a significant character (not always the case) and the relationship of Rothbart, Odette and Siegfried to each other was powerfully realised to the extent that I sat on the edge of my seat agog as the final act unfolded. This last act, which so often disintegrates into nothing more than a pretty finale, had great dramatic intensity as Odette struggled against the opposing forces that Rothbart and Siegfried represented.

I saw two casts and was most affected by the cast led by Vadim Muntagirov as Siegfried. Muntagirov, still a very young artist, dances with so much care for the details of ballet technique. He moves with elegance, he executes jumps with the lightness and grace of a panther, and his turns and tours en l’air are beautifully placed and yet exude bravura. In his solo in Act I where he ponders his predicament as a young man, who has been told he must marry but who yearns for something he can’t quite yet articulate, he displayed his refined line and his ability to show emotion through technique.

Muntagirov partnered a very secure Daria Klimentova as Odette/Odile—fragile as Odette, cunning and ultimately triumphant as Odile. Rothbart was danced with flair by Fabian Reimair. Others who stood out to me included Shiori Kase in the Act I pas de quatre at both performances I saw, and Esteban Berlanga who acquitted himself well as Siegfried in the second cast partnering Erina Takahashi.

Apart from having the pleasure of watching some really good technical dancing, and seeing a company so well rehearsed and coached, the greatest joy was seeing a performance that gave full reign to Swan Lake’s brooding Gothic character. Peter Farmer’s design helped but nothing can take the place of intelligent staging. Many bouquets to ENB. Is ballet dead? Certainly not at English National Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 3 April 2011