10 Reasons Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale Will Last
Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter’s Tale is that rare accomplishment: a brand new story ballet that speaks to today’s audience. I saw two excellent casts with National Ballet of Canada (it premiered with co-commissioning partner The Royal Ballet in 2014) at Lincoln Center Festival July 28 and 29, and wish I could see it many more times. Wheeldon has taken this “difficult” play by Shakespeare and turned it into a beautiful, poignant ballet. The narrative covers complex ground: King Leontes jealously accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione, of infidelity with his friend King Polixenes, resulting in the demise of Leontes’ wife and son and the banishment of his newborn daughter. The situation is resolved sixteen years later with the marriage of Leontes’ long lost daughter to Polixenes’ son and the revelation that Hermione still lives, but not without a realistic dose of strife and remorse ahead of the family’s reunion. Audiences sat rapt during both evenings. It is not a fairy tale trapped in the past but rather has a universal relevance. Here are some reasons why I think The Winter’s Tale will live on for a long time.
1. The music by Joby Talbot is enchanting from the first note to the last. It helps set up a caring community onstage but also drives the narrative tension.
2. Wheeldon’s choreography tells the story of King Leontes’ jealous rage and its destructiveness with boldness and sensitivity, giving the ballet intimacy even in a big theater.
Piotr Stanczyk as Leontes and Harrison James as Polixenes, photos by Rosalie O'Connor
3. King Leontes has a mad scene every bit as riveting as Giselle’s. His fingers curdle, he looks crazed, and he lurches with rage and disorientation.
4. The recurring motifs come through on repeated viewing. In the most frequent movement theme, the arms reach overhead, one hand holding the other elbow in an “h” shape, as if to say, “This is who I am.” This port de bras is done gently, with aggression, or with desperation depending on the character’s mood.
Hannah Fischer as Hermione
5. The inventiveness that Wheeldon wields so naturally in his abstract ballets finds its way here. The heartbreaks, the battles, the friendship turning sour, all are choreographed in a way that is fresh. The tricky partnering for the young lovers Perdita and Florizel, as well as Leontes’ brutality toward his wife Hermione, reach out and grab you.
6. Wheeldon breaks the fourth wall, adding to the intimacy. At certain moments, the crowd onstage cheers “Yay!” and claps their approval, or sighs “Awww” when the young couple gets engaged. (I remember the “awww” from his Cinderella too; it reminds us that dancers have voices.) He also brought a band of real musicians onto the stage, which allows us to feel more part of the action.
7. Wheeldon (with the help of Shakespeare) has created plum roles that are emotionally complex and technically challenging. Piotr Stanczyk’s King Leontes was aggressive and sharp whereas Evan McKie’s interpretation was more inward, as though invaded by demons. The role of Paulina, the head of Queen Hermione's household, is as warm and virtuous as the Lilac Fairy, but she attacks Leontes when she’s so angry and grief-stricken that she forgets her place as a servant.
8. The set design: When the curtain opens on Bob Crowley’s magnificent Wishing Tree in Act II, with its roots splayed above ground and its branches bejeweled with pendants of hope, you know that this Bohemia is a whimsical land.
Naoye Ebe and Jillian Vanstone as Florizel and Perdita
9. The dancing! The group flow in Act II's Bohemia reveals a vibrant, loving community—quite the opposite of the royal jealousy and revenge shown in Act I. The colorful shepherds and shepherdesses entwine in ways that echo the young lovers Perdita and Florizel. When the shepherds sneak in some capoeira moves or when the music veers into an Irish gig, you feel glad that this production doesn’t lock the setting into one particular period.
10. Some scenes seize you with their violent tension and others are so touching that you melt with heartbreak or joy. One leaves the theater emotionally sated.
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series