The Winter’s Tale, The Royal Ballet

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, July 5.

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s wondrously strange, knotty late works. The pitfalls are many but so are the rewards. Compassion, contrition, forgiveness for great wrongs and reconciliation are its towering themes.

Dance gives direct access to such heart-stirring emotions, or does at its best. Christopher Wheeldon and his brilliant collaborators, chief among them composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley, have created an essentially faithful reading of The Winter’s Tale that does honour to the text and even improves on it at one point. Along the way they prove the three-act story ballet still has plenty of juice left.

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Edward Watson as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

Leontes, King of Sicilia, believes his wife, Hermione, has broken her marriage vows with his lifelong friend the Bohemian king Polixenes, and a mad obsession takes hold. The fallout is catastrophic as family and friendships are wilfully demolished.

That would be more than enough for a meaty tragedy but it’s just the beginning: The Winter’s Tale seeks the light. A lost child is found, a woman thought dead comes back to life, amity between kings is restored and their offspring fall in love, offering bright hope for the future.

Wheeldon’s telling is lucid, tightly focused and gorgeously arrayed in sound and sight. Talbot’s score overflows with energy, generated by lusty rhythms, Eastern flavours and tremendously effective, scene-setting instrumentation, revealed sumptuously by Queensland Symphony Orchestra under music director Alondra de la Parra.

Crowley’s designs are just as potent a narrative element too, juxtaposing the austere formality of the Sicilian court with the buoyant, colour-drenched Bohemian countryside where, 16 years after the events in Sicilia, young lovers Perdita and prince-in-disguise Florizel frolic with friends who are bursting out of their skins with boundless energy and good humour.

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Francesca Hayward and Steven McRae in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

The zesty, folk-meets-ballet dances in this second act are intricately constructed, utterly delightful and really do go on too long, although Wheeldon knows his audience. Cheers greeted the outpouring of youthful virtuosity. Francesca Hayward’s fresh, unaffected radiance as Perdita and McRae’s soaring, ardent, fleet-footed Florizel were thrilling.

Apart from Hayward, who replaced the injured Sarah Lamb, on the first night of The Winter’s Tale Brisbane saw the dancers on whom the ballet was made. They included the incomparable Edward Watson as Leontes and, as Hermione’s confidante Paulina, glorious Zenaida Yanowsky, who retires from the Royal after the final Brisbane performance tomorrow (July 9). Yanowsky recently farewelled London audiences after starring in Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand but perhaps she isn’t unhappy that Paulina, the conscience of The Winter’s Tale, truly marks her exit.

Wheeldon gave his most pungent and distinctive choreography to Paulina and the tormented Leontes and Yanowsky and Watson, both superlative dance artists, made starkly expressionistic movement a window into the soul. They were matched in impact by Lauren Cuthbertson’s dignity and strength as the ill-treated Hermione.

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Zenaida Yanowsky as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

Watson wasn’t afraid to walk a treacherously slippery highwire. Leontes is very close to insanity as he insists on believing that Hermione is an adulterer and Watson gave the character something of the extreme intensity seen in silent films. Leontes’s restless, angular movement takes its cue from an agonised speech in Shakespeare’s Act II in which a highly unsettling image is conjured: “I have drunk, and seen the spider,” says the king. Watson looked feverish and distraught in a dangerous, on-the-edge performance.

He was therefore all the more touching when Leontes realises Perdita is the daughter he abandoned (a scene not shown by Shakespeare but related by characters called First Gentleman, Second Gentleman and Third Gentleman). Soon after, Leontes discovers that Hermione, too, is still alive but Wheeldon again departs from Shakespeare by reminding the audience that some things can never be truly mended.

Shakespeare’s Leontes decides to promote a marriage for Paulina, just to round off the happy ending. Wheeldon leaves her alone and mourning. He and Talbot, who collaborated with Wheeldon on the scenario, have revived hope for serious narrative ballet.

The Winter’s Tale ends in Brisbane tomorrow (Sunday, July 9).

One evening, four works

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 29.

LET’S start with the very best bit first. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had a particularly good night on Tuesday under Australian Ballet music director Nicolette Fraillon’s leadership. The quadruple bill Chroma covers a lot of ground: Mozart for Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze, Tchaikovsky’s homage to Mozart for a new piece by Stephen Baynes and Joby Talbot’s White Stripes-inspired score, written in 2006 for the Wayne McGregor work that gives this program its title.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Wayne McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Jess Bialek

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Photo: Jess Bialek

Talbot’s music is gorgeously textured and richly coloured as well as providing a super-solid yet flexible base for McGregor’s out-there movement. It rocks and it rolls, often luxuriously and lyrically, and the AOBO conveyed the excitement and tension. The Kylian works are performed to Mozart’s Six German Dances and the sublime slow movements from his piano concertos numbers 21 and 23 (at the first performance the AB’s principal pianist Stuart Macklin was the fine soloist), and as a bonus Fraillon threw in the allegro first movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D to provide a lively entr’acte between the two short Kylians.

McGregor’s piece is not without intimations of human connection but they are fleeting and enigmatic, as is so much else. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies.

On Tuesday night the AB cast of 10 didn’t entirely get on top of Chroma’s fantastically difficult transitions, many happening in a microsecond, from crisp to liquid and back again. There wasn’t enough bite and drama, although plenty of lovely moments in a work that repays repeated viewings. Andrew Killian, Brett Chynoweth and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson had plenty of attack in the fierce trio in the middle of the work and Amber Scott and Adam Bull gave a beautiful account of the quiet pas de deux that immediately follows.

Adam Bull and Robyn Hendricks in Petite Mort. Photo: Jess Bialek

Adam Bull and Robyn Hendricks in Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort. Photo: Jess Bialek

Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze were given rousing performances on Tuesday, possibly a little over the top in Sechs Tanze but in keeping with its gaiety in the face of whatever the fates decree. Four couples, dressed in what look like 18th century undergarments, engage in lots of horseplay, bouncing and jumping in unexpected, often surreal, but very playful ways. They could be servants breaking loose while the master is away, perhaps. There is certainly an undercurrent of trouble. The piece is introduced with the sound of thunder and at the end, when the music stops, the men and women retreat a little fearfully – an aspect of the work not fully brought out at this performance.

Despite one or two scrappy moments Petite Mort (performed before Sechs Tanze) again demonstrated the AB’s affinity for Kylian. In this ballet rousing is indeed the mot juste, as the title is a euphemism for orgasm. There are men with fencing foils, women in corsets, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

In the middle came Baynes’s new Art to Sky. At its premiere it felt uncertain in tone and looked uninspiring in construction. There was a main man (Andrew Killian), a woman who seemed to represent a romantic ideal (Madeleine Eastoe, wasted) and a ballerina with a tiara (Lana Jones), but little sense of tension or compelling purpose. Elements of jocularity emerged that had the audience tittering a little unsurely and that felt unmotivated. Perhaps it would have been better to revive one of Baynes’s earlier one-act ballets, of which there are many stronger examples.

The costumes and set for Art to Sky do not help matters – there is a kind of grotto effect and most of the dancers are dressed as if in very neat practice gear. Hugh Colman, responsible for both aspects of the design, appeared to be having a very rare off day. Only days before Chroma I admired Colman’s charming design for Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia and he is also the designer of the glamorous tutus for Ballet Imperial, part of the Imperial Suite program that is in repertory with Chroma.

The decision to have two mixed-bill programs rather than the usual one would appear to be a very good one. It’s hard to sell 20 performances of anything other than a known story ballet, so to divide the season between Chroma and Imperial Suite could pay dividends. If audiences aren’t attracted by the likes of McGregor and Kylian, there’s the classical double of Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc to offer a big tutu fest.

Chroma alternates with Imperial Suite. Both end on May 17.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on May 1.