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Winter 2017

Two New Ballets

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Wendy Lesser

The Winter’s Tale,
choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.
Royal Ballet, London,
May 21, 2016.

The Golden Cockerel,
choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky.
American Ballet Theatre, New York,
June 6, 2016.

Dance is the least predictable of art forms. Even when done by a choreographer you love, with superb music and excellent dancers, a new piece may disappoint—and, conversely, something about which you had low expectations may delight and move you. Last spring I saw, in quick succession, two relatively new evening-length ballets on either side of the Atlantic. Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale had been around since 2014, in performances by both the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, but I only caught up with it in May at Covent Garden. Alexei Ratmansky’s version of The Golden Cockerel (a work which has an old Russian history, going back to Fokine and earlier) opened in Copenhagen in 2012 but did not have its American premiere until this past June in New York. In each case, the performances I saw surprised me.

Wheeldon is not one of my favorite choreographers, and I’ve especially disliked the way he’s sometimes used women in his work, which did not bode well for Hermione, Paulina, and Perdita. Worse yet, this Winter’s Tale had a newly commissioned score by an unknown-to-me Englishman, Joby Talbot—a worrisome fact, given my long history of attending British Shakespeare productions burdened by trashily new music. Moreover, the lead dancer in the May performance, Edward Watson, had recently been criticized by a major Anglo-American dance critic for, among other things, having red hair and pale skin: flaws that I forgive, since I have them both myself, but still... So I was nervous about the Covent Garden evening. I warned my non-ballet-fan companions (dragged along at great expense) that the only thing in the dance’s favor was that a San Francisco friend had raved about the Toronto performance she had seen, saying it was one of her favorite new ballets ever. “There is only a fifty percent chance that I’m going to like this,” I confessed, “but if I do like it, there’s a ten percent chance it’s going to be great.” In the event, our bet paid off handsomely, and at the first interval we toasted gratefully to the excellent taste of my California friend.

The good news started with the overture, or the Prologue, as it was called here, where the curtain lifted to reveal a brief sequence of dance that gave the story’s background: how two young princes, Leontes and Polixenes, were close boyhood friends but then parted before they became Kings of, respectively, Sicilia and Bohemia. The music was fine—not just completely inoffensive, but pleasurable, sharp, dark and frightening where it needed to be dark and frightening, danceably melodic though occasionally dissonant, and exactly right for the performance it underlay. The set, by Bob Crowley, was gorgeous (and continued to be increasingly gorgeous as the dance progressed, so much so that the audience, in a fit of uncharacteristic Broadway idiocy, actually applauded when the Bohemia setting was revealed). But most exciting of all was the way story was being conveyed through dance: real dance, not mime, but dance so expressive that you might forget there were no words involved.

I imagine that someone who didn’t know the Shakespeare play could have followed the plot just by watching Wheeldon’s ballet. (If not, there was a helpful two-page synopsis in the free handout that also listed the cast members.) But the better you knew the play, the better the ballet seemed, because it was so true to its Shakespearean source. At one point in Act One, for instance, when Polixenes and Leontes have been reunited at the court of Sicilia, and the Bohemian king is dancing with his friend’s very pregnant wife, Wheeldon has the two of them press their palms briefly together, in an exact echo of the whispered lines that signal Leontes’ burgeoning jealousy: “But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,/As they now are...” And then there was the brilliant way the choreographer dealt with the problematic bear. “Exit, pursued by a bear,” one of Shakespeare’s famously rare stage directions, too often lends a comic note, even in serious stage productions, to the brave Antigonus’s sad fate; to have a ballet dancer dressed as a bear would have been even worse. So Wheeldon employed the designer and puppeteer Basil Twist to create a silken image of a bear that swiftly swept across the backdrop at the appropriate moment.

The middle section of the play, set in Bohemia sixteen years after the preceding scene, has always felt like a strange interruption in the drama, since it’s primarily a pastoral episode filled with lots of singing and dancing. (In a BAM performance I saw a number of years ago, the longueurs were countered by having Ethan Hawke perform amusingly on a guitar.) Here, of course, that kind of interlude worked beautifully, because good dancing was exactly what we had come to see: it was as if Shakespeare had foreseen, some four centuries earlier, that a choreographer might come along and be able to use precisely this sort of break. And though I did not love the Perdita (Sarah Lamb) and the Florizel (Steven McCrae) who were cast in this act’s main roles, I adored the background dancers—especially Valentino Zucchetti, who played Perdita’s adopted brother, and the whole range of unspecified male performers who were assigned to the Chechen-like line and circle dances. Ever since seeing some of Chechnya’s amazing male dancers on film, I have been waiting for a bigtime Western choreographer to mimic that brilliant style, and Wheeldon has done it here, superbly.

But the true virtues of the dancing came out in the central roles of Acts One and Three—the performances by Lauren Cuthbertson as Hermione, Zenaida Zenowsky as Paulina, and Edward Watson as Leontes. Cuthbertson was delicate and lovely and, as the dismayed victim of Leontes’ insane jealousy, pitiably appealing. She also managed, even with a pregnant belly strapped on, to be graceful and seemingly carefree in her lighter dancing moments.

Zenowsky, for me, was the stand-out in the show: her ability to lengthen her already long limbs when she was asserting her moral claims, and to stiffen her feet weirdly for the moments when she was backing sadly away from a distraught Leontes, will stay with me forever. Paulina, for Shakespeare, is the moral center of this strange universe—not just the person who saves the queen and ultimately the king, but also the one who remembers, when everyone is happy at the end, that certain losses remain permanent:

Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some weathered bough and there
My mate, that’s never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.

And Zenowsky, with her powerful, stern, yet sensitive demeanor, perfectly exemplified that memorable Shakespearean character.

But if Zenaida Zenowsky was my personal favorite, Edward Watson was indubitably the star of the show. Never mind the red hair and the pale skin: as a dancer, he was terrific, and Wheeldon handed him a part that would be the high point of any male ballet dancer’s career. The tortured expressions of Leontes’ sudden insanity—and, even more, of his painful realization of what his crazed jealousy had brought about—were incomparably rendered in dance. This was not ballet as we usually experience it. The gestural range harkened back to the early years of modern dance, or to innovative ballets like The Green Table, even as it also seemed utterly contemporary and perfectly in tune with Royal Ballet training.

Psychologically and dramatically, there is no explaining Leontes’ abrupt transformation, and actors who try for a naturalistic explanation are always left stranded in the part. But the psychotic lunacy can nonetheless be witnessed from the outside and, especially in dance, even from the inside. In a brilliant equivalent of the soliloquies that mark Leontes’ increasing rage, Wheeldon has set one brief scene in the jealous king’s imagination, with Polixenes actually making dance-love to Hermione, who responds with enthusiasm. (My seatmate at Covent Garden, an Englishwoman who had been attending Royal Ballet performances since shortly after Margot Fonteyn’s retirement, was briefly disturbed at what she thought was a violation of the Shakespeare—Polixenes and Hermione, guilty?—until I pointed out to her that this was just Leontes’ hallucination.) But that was only one of many expressive and moving passages in this performance. I pitied Leontes as I never have in any staged production, for his knowledge of what he had destroyed; and the tears that came to my eyes during the final reconciliation sequence were intensified at the very end, when the king, alone onstage, lingered at the statue dedicated to his dead son, lovingly touching the stone foot of the child who would never return.

There were no such moments in The Golden Cockerel, though it too featured a king who lost his children to death—two grown sons, in this case, who fought in a pointless battle to defend their Tsar father’s greedy ambitions and desires. But though the ABT dancers who played those princes (Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Gorak) were excellent in the performance I saw, and though the Cockerel herself was marvelously danced by Skylar Brandt, this was essentially a ballet without feeling.

It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong. Alexei Ratmansky is a brilliant choreographer, most of whose recent work I have admired and even loved. This piece was set to an old score by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: again, a good advance signal, since Ratmansky has a deep and complicated feel for Russian music. And though certain of the problems in the dance may have stemmed from its cultural history—the excesses of costuming and scenery, the use of non-dancing dancers in central roles, the essential silliness of the plot—that kind of thing doesn’t normally stymie Ratmansky, whose genius has often lain in merging Soviet or even pre-Soviet dance habits with modern ones. But something in this material defeated him.

He did create some great choreography for the Cockerel, whose flat horizontal back and jerkily raised arms and neck suggested a magical device that was also a mechanical invention. And there were occasional passages for duos and trios (the Tsar’s sons, the three Eastern dancers) that carried some of the spark of Ratmansky’s usual work. But there was remarkably little dance that came fully to life in this ballet. The extended solos for Veronika Part’s exotic Queen verged on the ridiculous: they were displays without expression, exhibitions of technique without any emotional purpose. And it was pointless to have a good dancer like Cory Stearns in the role of the barely dancing Astrologer, just as it was annoying to have other central roles (the Tsar, his housekeeper, his general) occupied by former dancers now given mere “character” parts. The fact that this is how things are traditionally done in Russian opera and Russian ballet did not suffice for an American audience. Many of us were frankly bored. And whereas the three hours plus that I spent at The Winter’s Tale had passed like a dream, I could barely wait for the shorter Golden Cockerel to be over; at times it seemed that the second, inferior act was going to last forever. This is not how you want your audience to feel when confronted by a new ballet, and the Wheeldon triumph was evidence that we needn’t feel that way. I admit I was expecting much more of Ratmansky. I still feel I was right to expect that, and I will continue to, every time.

Wendy Lesser's You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn will be out from Farrar Straus and Giroux in March. She is the founding and current editor of The Threepenny Review.

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