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The Winter’s Tale Dance Highlight: The trial scene

Without words, Christopher Wheeldon's choreography powerfully illuminates Shakespeare's text and the innermost thoughts of his characters.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

24 March 2016 at 5.00pm | 4 Comments

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has a vivid narrative, full of gripping twists and turns, finished with a fairytale ending – in many ways an obvious choice for a big story ballet. But much of the action is revealed through the memories, thoughts and feelings of the protagonists, while psychological insights play a key role in the drama. Choreographing The Winter’s Tale, then, requires a particularly imaginative touch – one which is evident throughout Christopher Wheeldon’s acclaimed 2014 ballet adaptation.

One of most affecting moments in both ballet and play is the trial scene, where the wronged Hermione pleads her innocence before her husband Leontes, whose mad jealousy has led him to accuse Hermione of becoming pregnant by his friend Polixenes. Wheeldon eloquently and powerfully depicts the inner worlds of his characters, through movement that recalls Shakespeare’s words.

As Hermione enters the courtroom, her inner turmoil and fear are immediately apparent. With hesitant and mechanical movements, she steps forward to face her husband and accuser. She begins to dance – her gaze downwards, and one hand clasped to her abdomen, remembering the child taken from her. Throwing herself to the floor, she arches backwards, arms and legs outstretched, before looking up at Leontes for the first time, kneeling, with a hand on her heart.

My past life hath been as continent, as chaste, as true, as I am now unhappy"

Desperate to demonstrate her innocence, Hermione appeals to the King again and again – arms raised above her head in submission and vulnerability, presenting the open palm of her hand to him and reaching imploringly in his direction in arabesque. But, seeing no flicker of response or understanding from him, her distress builds. To the unsettling lament of Joby Talbot’s score, the underlying agitation revealed by the disturbed opening and closing of her hands develops into more demonstrative suffering as she sweeps her arms across her body and stretches them out in despair, collapsing in her middle as if enduring physical pain.

In another distraught attempt to get through to him, she clasps her wrists and draws an arm across her face – a memory of the gesture that they performed together when were first united in the Prologue. Leontes’s indifference to this petition proves too much for Hermione and, as the music grows increasingly sinister she spins inconsolably from one lady-in-waiting to another, kicking her legs behind her in agitated arabesques before collapsing to her knees.

I appeal to your own conscience, sir"

Gathering herself once more, Hermione rises and again turns to Leontes. In a lyrical section of dance, she appeals to him more plaintively, with ardent epaulement and a long passage of shimmering bourées, her gaze fixed in his direction. Finally, he turns to face her, and the music swells as they stare at one another.

Tell me what blessings I have here alive, that I should fear to die? Therefore proceed"

However, any hope that Leontes has finally been convinced of Hermione’s purity and innocence is short-lived. As he climbs down from the statue, her distress turns to incredulity – even anger – at his lack of trust, and she approaches him with arms flung wide in arabesque and jabbed towards him in remonstration. The couple explode into a delirious passage of pas de deux – full of violent grand battements and dizzying spins. Leontes hooks his arms through Hermione’s, pinning them roughly behind her back. Manhandling her into a backbend, he looks into her eyes – searching for justification? reassurance? But, unable to find it, he covers her face cruelly with his hand, and she melts to the floor in grief and resignation.

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 and is given with generous philanthropic support from Anna and Moshe Kantor, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund and The Friends of Covent Garden.

This article has 4 comments

  1. Valerie Knight responded on 24 March 2016 at 7:58pm Reply

    I think this ballet is a 21st century classic having seen it at ROH and the cinema and the DVD. Music, choreography, Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson - wonderful.

  2. Dillon Naylor responded on 25 March 2016 at 2:24pm Reply

    This is a wonderful piece of writing expressing such a beautiful piece of choreography and music. So glad that you included lines from the original play! I'm looking forward to crossing the Atlantic to see Lauren Cuthbertson and company in this timeless ballet.

  3. Leontes jealousy towards his wife and Polixenes is completely justified during the ballet since they both have a scene where they act and dance as a couple, which is observed by Leontes, so he has no doubt about the affair that is taking place between his friend and wife.
    Even Hermoine looks like a liar at the time she is pleading for his forgiveness.
    Unfortunately, at the end of the ballet, this scene is forgotten and it turns out that Leontes was the jealous person and Hermoine and Polixenes didn't have the affair. So, the end is not even a fairy tale end, it's disappointing.

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