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Ballet Essentials: The Winter's Tale

A quick guide to Christopher Wheeldon's captivating Shakespeare adaptation.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

31 March 2014 at 5.43pm | Comment on this article

The Story Begins…

Two kings, Leontes of Sicilia and Polixenes of Bohemia, were separated as children. Leontes, his wife Hermione and their son, Mamillius, are blissfully happy. Polixenes visits the court of Leontes. The two old friends are delighted to be reunited, and Polixenes stays for nine months. By the time of his departure, Hermione is about to give birth to her second child, and Leontes is thrown into an agony of suspicion…

The Bard and the Ballet

Shakespeare’s plays have provided inspiration for choreographers for over 250 years. Some of the most popular works, such as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, have been staged multiple times – the latter has been mounted by choreographers including Marius PetipaGeorge Balanchine and Frederick AshtonWheeldon’s ballet is unique in that it is the first to be based on The Winter’s Tale.

Adapting a 'Problem Play'

The Winter’s Tale was the last full-length play written by Shakespeare before The Tempest. Its unusual combination of dark drama and comedy, as well as its expansive timespan and complex plot, means that it is performed less frequently than some other Shakespeare plays; it is perhaps known more for its famous stage direction, ‘exit, pursued by a bear’, than for anything else. In his adaptation, Wheeldon has streamlined the plot to focus on its main characters and themes, revealing it to be perfect fodder for gripping narrative ballet.

All-consuming jealousy

The driving force behind the plot of The Winter’s Tale is Leontes’ unfounded jealousy against his wife and friend, and the destruction it creates. This provided the perfect opportunity for Wheeldon to create a leading role for Edward Watson, with whom he has collaborated regularly and who he believes ‘can handle a slightly older, more mature character’. The ballet also includes a further five principal roles, providing exciting opportunities to display the Company’s star dancers, as well as promising talent from within the ranks.

Darkness and Light

The music and designs for The Winter’s Tale, by Joby Talbot and Bob Crowley, vividly depict the contrasting worlds explored in the ballet. Dreary, black costumes and musical devices, such as strangulated low brass and muted trumpets, evoke the murky and troubled Sicilian court; while vibrant sets and costumes, along with shimmering, golden musical textures and an exotic stage consort conjure up the light-filled, pastoral Bohemia.

The Winter’s Tale runs 12 April-10 June 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada. It is generously supported by Anna and Moshe Kantor, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund and The Friends of Covent Garden

Christopher Wheeldon’s Position as Artistic Associate is generously supported by Kenneth and Susan Green

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