Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, one of the bard's problem plays with its themes of wrong-headed leadership and outright cruelty, may not seem a likely source for a ballet, but choreographer Christopher Wheeldon thought otherwise. In the play, King Leontes' (Edward Watson) jealous rage leads to the deaths of his young son, his wife Hermoine (Lauren Cuthbertson), and her unborn baby. Just as operas are now brought to audiences in state-of-the-art films, so too will The Winter's Tale follow the highly successful ballet of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland onto the big screen. Featuring commentary by Christopher Wheeldon, composer Joby Talbot, and designer Bob Crowley, the film of The Winter's Tale is exquisite, at once accessible and richly absorbing.
Taking a break from rehearsals for his An American in Paris, to open on Broadway this month, Christopher Wheeldon spoke about The Winter's Tale at the Crosby Hotel last week, at a special screening to celebrate the Royal Opera House cinema season: "The Winter's Tale was recommended by Nicolas Hytner for its operatic scale." Rather than make a ballet as Balanchine did in choreographing "The Moor's Pavanne" for four dancers, the film shows the full story, as if you had the best seat at the theater.
"The Winter's Tale is yin and yang," Wheeldon explained the operatic appeal, "Extreme darkness contrasts with a beautiful, joyous pastoral for the second act, and the crashing together of the two worlds in the third. This play offers extreme comedy, tragedy and romance all in one work, exciting because you get to explore two very different ways of working. Translating Shakespeare is not just telling a story but lifting the poetry off the page. Conveying a transcendent--and supernatural-- plot was a challenge."
What was particularly difficult for you to choreograph?
The death of Mamillius, the child, and all of the scenes where Leontes brutalizes Hermoine, the pregnancy, and the final scene were difficult. In play form, the deaths occur offstage, but in ballet form, there is no way to have someone run out and convey that something has happened; you have to show it. Those moments are most challenging.
How does choreographing a full ballet differ from directing the musical, An American in Paris?
This is the first time I am directing a musical. I choreographed An American in Paris for the NYC Ballet a few years ago just as a ballet. It's not even a relative of the new version. An American in Paris is a Broadway musical with many dance numbers and a ballet at the end. The ballet within is a 12-minute dance number, and smaller. Robert Fairchild (Jerry), from the NYC Ballet, and Leanne Cope (Lise), from the Royal Ballet, lead a great mix of ballet dancers and Broadway performers.
Replays of The Winter's Tale will begin in select cities starting March 16. See ROHcinema.com.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.