Say you were to drink from a cup that had a spider at the bottom of it. If you didn’t notice it, then — once you’d finished drinking — you’d carry on as normal. But if someone showed it to you, you would retch in panic and disgust.
This scenario is the gist of a speech spoken by Leontes, the king of Sicilia, in Act 2, scene 1 of The Winter’s Tale. He has just been struck by the thought that he has been cuckolded by his pregnant wife, Hermione, with his friend, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. Now he can’t unthink it. He says: ‘I have drunk and seen the spider.’
These words give Christopher Wheeldon the movement he needs to show that instant when his Leontes is infected by suspicion. It begins with spider-like writhings of his fingers, as if paranoia is creeping in through his hands to his brain. This is the most consequential moment of the entire ballet and if it is histrionic, the audience won’t believe in it. So, Wheeldon uses a filmic technique by freezing all the action on a darkened stage, apart from Leontes, who makes a simple hand movement that recalls the running legs of a spider. It is as if he is bursting out of himself. When the lights come up and the dancers move again, you know that everything has changed.
Act 1 of Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale goes on to tell the consequences of Leontes’ mad delusion. He employs imaginative steps, but the choreography is in service of the story-telling, which is easy to follow. It’s dance drama, so the movement is used to relay the narrative and describe character. There is no mime but plenty of normal reactions, natural body language and gestures. No tutus but simple long dresses and frock coats. His overriding concern seems to be plausibility. By having recognisable characters who respond in naturalistic ways, the fantasy remains grounded.
But there are other moments of dramatic intensity beside the spider fingers. When Hermione is on trial, she steps forward, one hand on her chest, the other on her stomach. She has lost her emerald necklace, the love token that Leontes had given her, and she has lost their baby daughter. As she pleads for justice, their young son, Mamillius, appears at the top of a staircase to see what is going on. It’s like when children gather upstairs to listen to the adults arguing below. He slowly comes down, but it is as descent into hell: overcome with distress at what is happening to his mother, he dies. In the confusion that follows, Hermione also appears to fall dead. The fury of Paulina, head of her household as she runs to Leontes, fists flying — see what you have done — is the emotion of everyone in the theatre at that moment. It’s exciting, like a film is exciting.
Act 2 is when the dancing begins. The location moves to the sunny pastoral idyll of Bohemia. The set is dominated by a moss-covered tree: a tree of life, a great big symbol of fertility and joy by designer Bob Crowley. It is decorated for the springtime festival with ornaments hanging like wishes for the future. The corps of lithe young bodies hold hands and dance: the stage is alive with brightness after the Caspar David Friedrich gloom of the palace in Sicilia with its heavy statues. The village boys wear a skirt as part of their costume, which is reminiscent of the national dress of Greece or the Balkans or … somewhere. They hint at sexual playfulness and add to the swirling movement.
Wheeldon devises a kind of folk dancing for this act with a flexed foot motif that he called a ‘stoic step’ in an interview at QPAC. There is a folk band too on stage. The mix of music by composer Joby Talbot is complex here. The illusion is that the dancers only hear the band, but the musicians are playing part of the score and are conducted from the podium. The technique of using diogenes and non-diogenes music is filmic once again and it is another strategy to enhance the plausibility that is at the heart of Wheeldon’s story-telling.
One of the musicians lends his coat to a stranger who hides in the tree to watch the goings-on. It is Polixenes and he is watching for his son, Florizel, who has escaped to the springtime festival because he is in love with a shepherdess. Her name is Perdita, which means ‘lost’ and she is Hermione’s lost daughter. She was not killed as Leontes ordered, but spirited away to Bohemia where she has been brought up by the shepherd who found her on the shore. Perdita is crowned May Queen, and Father Shepherd presents her with an emerald necklace that was found with her 16 years ago. She and Florizel dance a duet that is part-ritual , part-love song, accompanied by the tender playing of the flautist from the folk band. Their relationship — prince in disguise, village girl who hasn’t a clue — recalls that of Giselle and Albrecht and, as in the best Romantic tradition, once Polixenes erupts and Florizel’s identity is revealed, it all falls apart. The lovers have flee by boat to Sicilia with Polixenes in pursuit.
In the transition scenes — from Sicilia to Bohemia and back again — Wheeldon uses spectacular theatrical effects like the prow of a ship looming forward out of a dark stage. Huge silks designed by Basil Twist become waves and royal standards. The Winter’s Tale contains one of the most famous stage directions in drama: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’ The individual who encounters the bear is Antigonus: he meets his fate while trying to take Perdita to safety at the end of Act 1. The bear’s immense face appears on a silk above the stage and suddenly vanishes. At these hot spots, Wheeldon does not aim for plausibility but its reverse, something fantastical and unreal. The illusion is theatrical, not filmic, and is another use of resources that stir the imagination.
Meanwhile it’s Act 3 and back to the gloomy palace of misery and regret. Florizel and Perdita appeal to Leontes for help and that is when Paulina recognises the emerald necklace. Wheeldon has inserted this plot device, it does not exist in Shakespeare’s text. It gives him a means of identifying Perdita at the climax of the action that is both coherent dramatically and visible at the back of dress circle. This moment —when Leontes realises his abandoned child of his wronged wife is now before him — is another emotional spike, although it does not have the gothic intensity of old spider fingers. Wheeldon said in the QPAC interview that the text underplayed the reunion, so Shakespeare must have failed to deliver a juicy image to stimulate choreographic invention. If you were unexpectedly reunited with a lost child you would be devoured by emotion, but perhaps in ways too complex to show in dance.
Paulina introduces the final spike: she takes Leontes to show him a statue of Hermione and Mamillian. He grabs Hermione’s hand in tortured remorse — and she stirs. Hermione is alive and all this time she has been kept hidden by Paulina (big palace, obviously). Leontes has had his wife and daughter restored to him, but Wheeldon does not let him off completely. It would be monstrous for there to be reconciliation and teary hugs after his actions in Act 1. All the satisfying naturalism that Wheeldon has crafted elsewhere would be ruined. There is a hint of forgiveness in the final duet of Hermione and Leontes before she skips off with her daughter; and then, alone, he tries to bring the statue of Mamillian to life, but finds he can’t. It is stone; the boy is dead; the fruits of paranoia cannot be uneaten.
When Christopher Wheeldon produced Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet in 2013, it was the first new full-length story ballet the company had given since Twyla Tharp’s unsuccessful and unlamented production of Mr Worldly Wise in 1995. The Royal was once nonpareil for fine story ballets by its in-house choreographers, the twin gods Ashton and McMillan. Now perhaps the crown can be passed to the boy-ish-king (he’s in his early 40s).
The Winter’s Tale is a more successful ballet than Alice because it tells a more coherent story. Given that audiences these days tend to be more screen than stage literate, Wheeldon shows dramatic intelligence in deploying filmic devices, such as the creepy moment of Leontes mad seizure. He also appeals to contemporary sensibilities by featuring independent, unusual female characters. The sight of a slender, elegant, pregnant ballerina is unprecedented in classical ballet and it makes for much pathos when Hermione’s baby is taken from her. Similarly, the character of Paulina is striking: young, but authoritative; the moral centre of the drama but not the love interest.
Ballet can’t do realism. The minute a woman ties on a pair of pointe shoes, realism is abandoned. It can do big and grand and other-worldly, and there is an exhilaration available to ballet that is unavailable to film in that the action unfolds before your eyes. You can be mesmerised by Leontes going bonkers right in front of you. Above all, by locating instances of plausibility and psychological consistency within the spectacle Wheeldon is able to bring the audience along. In The Winter’s Tale he has created a new style story ballet, both bold and thoughtful, dazzling and intimate.