So, this year has been a strange year for me, movie-wise. I went nuts at the beginning of the year for ballet and Japanese cinema. That’s almost all I’ve been watching; it’s becoming an obsession. I’ve been trying to watch live recordings of ballets, too. The Royal Ballet, The Bolshoi, Opéra national de Paris, any recordings I can find. I raided my library for all the ballets they possessed and began streaming them from Amazon, but what really got me going was when I purchased from Amazon The Royal Ballet Box Collection, which contains 22 different ballets of varying length. It’s been an absolute bonanza and I have been having to pace myself so I don’t watch all 22 in one month.
One of the things it has made me realize is that, unlike opera, ballet is still very much going strong, with new and successful productions of original ballets, as well as reinterpretations of classic ballets and traditional interpretations. One such original ballet is “A Winter’s Tale”, adapted from Shakespeare’s play of the same name. The choreography is provided by Christopher Wheeldon, one of the most successful contemporary choreographers of ballet, and the music by Joby Talbot, a successful British composer.
The story of the ballet follows that of the play, though somewhat trimmed. Leontes (Edward Watson) is king of Sicily, who suddenly and unaccountably takes it into his head that his wife, Hermione (Laura Cuthbertson), is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes (Federico Boneli), king of Bohemia. He banishes the friend and puts his wife on trial, which results in his wife dying, his son dying, and his rejection of their baby girl, who he believes is not really his child. The baby girl is abandoned, but fortunately rescued and raised by a shepherd.
The next act is considerably lighter in tone, choreography and color. It is mostly a party, with the shepherds dancing and Leontes daughter, Perdita (Sarah Lamb), now grown, becoming engaged to the son of Polixenes, Florizel (Steven McRae), though neither knows of the other’s identity. When Polixenes discovers that his son wants to marry the daughter of a shepherd, he is furious and Perdita and Florizel flee to Sicily, where, in the next act, all is revealed, along with one big surprise.
I’ve recently been thinking about the similarities between ballet and silent films (and recently learned at Movies Silently that dancing and ballet and silent films actually have a long and close history): they both can employ pantomime, both use the physical body to express emotion or tell a story, both require music, and both feature people of remarkable physical ability (think of Fairbanks or Chaplin and many others).
What was interesting is how much a plot-heavy ballet, like the first act of “A Winter’s Tale” reminds me of a silent movie. Especially because Wheeldon’s choreography is further from traditional ballet and employs many modern dancing elements. It is not as “leapy” as classic ballet. And traditional ballets, like “Sleeping Beauty” or “Swan Lake” generally have microscopic plots that set up banquets or balls or weddings or birthday parties so that massed groups of people can be present to dance. There is not actually that much plot to further. But there is more in “A Winter’s Tale,” which means that characters have to interact and communicate more using pantomime and dance. Leontes has to use dance to communicate his growing jealousy, which is presented like a creeping sickness of mind and body.
The second act, on the other hand, is more traditional. We have our mass of people dancing, simply to celebrate rather than to specifically advance a plot point, and we get a romantic pas de deux (essentially a dance that is a duo). It is more free and open, less restrained, to match the less claustrophobic atmosphere of the outside. The Sicilian court, on the other hand, is grim.
It’s marvelous to see how ballet has changed. In musicals, it has been said that the song and dance must advance the plot. That is harder to do in ballet because a good part of the reason people watch ballet is for the sheer beauty of the dance, but it still needs a plot to give the dances emotional resonance (usually, though there are many plot-less and beautiful ballets) and it is fascinating how modern ballets have also adapted so that increasingly the dance is integrated into the story. I have occasionally read complaints about certain ballets that they do not contain enough dance (or enough pas de deux), so it seems like a tricky line to walk so that the performance does not become a highly skilled pantomime show, but remains dance. I think “Winter’s Tale” succeeds very well, however. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching it and highly recommend it to all lovers of the ballet.
This post is my second contribution to “En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon,” hosted by myself and the wonderful Michaela, Be sure to read all the other posts, all of which have been marvelous.