It is a great privilege to see one of the great ballets of the 21st century so early in its history. I did not witness the original production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, nor of The Rite of Spring; but I have seen the very first production of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale and that is a truly special thing.

To explain why this particular ballet is so special is very difficult. It was danced beautifully of course, to a standard of excellence which we have come to expect from the Royal Ballet, and the costuming and scenery were meticulous, as they so often are. And yet, I have struggled immensely to write this review. In desperate times I draw on my old friend, cliché: words cannot begin to describe the exquisite nature of this ballet; it has to be seen to be believed!

After the fact, it seems amazing to me that Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was not already a long-standing stalwart of the classical ballet canon, so greatly has Wheeldon convinced me of its suitability for the ballet stage. However I did once upon a time have my reservations, in no small part due to difficulties in the text which would make a lesser choreographer than Wheeldon shy away from the project. Luckily for us, Wheeldon is not so easily intimidated.

The motivating emotion for the action in The Winter’s Tale, aside from the ubiquitous theme of love, is jealousy of a most devastating nature – jealousy, which is perhaps the least physical emotion and the least obvious for a ballet. How to convey the torturous effect of that all-consuming, yet insidious and oft-invisible emotion without words? With Edward Watson, that’s how! The brilliant principal dancer who plays Leontes, a goodly King who is suddenly seized with the jealous and spurious notion that his wife, Hermione, is pregnant by his best friend, Polixenes, thus beginning a downward spiral of events leading to the death of Hermione, the King’s man servant and even his own son.

Watson distinguishes himself, not for the first time, as a master actor as well as dancer, embodying the jealous king so completely that every paranoid thought, every suspicion, can visibly be seen to crawl through his skin. Whilst always working within the parameters of classical ballet, Wheeldon’s willingness to paw at those parameters allows him to create movement which feels stunningly fresh and original. He captures the ugliness of jealousy, how it twists and tortures the mind, with uncomfortable precision, and an eloquence of which few but the great bard himself could boast.

It is this poetic eloquence, which is perhaps key to Wheeldon’s brilliant storytelling. Whilst the story-arc was majestic and grand, the scenery large and looming and the themes universally devastating, the true exquisiteness of Wheeldon’s ballet lies in the minute detail of his choreography. Nothing is ever arbitrary. Every movement and moment, every gesture, every expression, is telling and uniquely placed so as to draw characters as compelling and complicated as their spoken-word counterparts. It is poetry in motion.

I happened to tweet after the show expressing my particular admiration for Lauren Cuthbertson’s portrayal of Hermione, the jilted wife of Leontes. Amongst such a wealth of talent it is an extraordinary thing to stand out and yet she did, for me at least. She responded to my tweet by suggesting that it was Hermione who stole my heart, and whilst I applaud her continued modesty, she perhaps has a point. Hermione, Lauren Cuthbertson’s Hermione, was the beating heart of this production. She is the innocent victim of her husband’s crazed jealousy and yet she is not weak or pathetic. She is evidently beloved and respected by her subjects and adored by her son, and she maintains a quiet integrity in the face of extreme and unwarranted humiliation. She turns out to be the lifeblood of the kingdom, her death a symbol of its destruction and her rebirth, a new beginning. I am not ashamed to admit that I was moved to tears by her gracious, yet desperate plea of innocence, at the end of Act 1, in which every movement conveyed the deeply felt pain of a lover scorned and rejected, yet still very much in love. Together, Cuthbertson and Watson will surely enter the great pantheon of ballet partnerships: each one stunning on their own, together, sublime.

Zenaida Yanowsky also deserves attention for her measured and incredibly moving portrayal of Paulina, the widowed and ever faithful servant to the royal family. As do Sarah Lamb and Steven McCrae, as Perdita and Florizel: a match made in ballet heaven. The second act, in which we meet these two young lovers, is perhaps the best argument for the pastoral tradition to grace the stage this side of the 20th century. An entire act of pastoral – pretty girls and leaping lads engaging in charmingly rustic flirtations – sounds somewhat tired, and certainly does not strike me as a recipe for grippingly original ballet. Yet Wheeldon brought such freshness and humour to his dances, which showcased the incredible talent of the company as a whole, that I couldn’t tear my eyes away nor wipe the smile from my face. The dancers’ sense of joy was infectious; their limitless energy, in a gruellingly athletic act, seemed almost to defy science. Every movement was new and exciting, and that flatness which so often accompanies dance on screen was nowhere to be found.

The score by Joby Talbot also deserves praise of the highest level. His score is sympathetic to the dancers and the narrative, so much so that paradoxically it almost went unnoticed by me. It seems so completely natural, so completely in tune – no pun intended – with the requirements of the story, that, a bit like the most deftly executed special effects in a blockbuster film, it is in danger of being underappreciated. Perhaps, like the ancient Roman mosaic-makers, Talbot would have done well to include one bum note so as to draw attention to the brilliance of the rest. But such a self-aggrandising act would not have been in keeping with that humble spirit of collaboration, which makes Wheeldon and Talbot the ballet dream team that they are.

Having said there are no words to describe this ballet, I now find myself unable to stop. I am in grave danger of gushing. Let it suffice to say that this is a ballet of operatic proportions. It deserves a place, and will surely in due course claim one, among the likes of Romeo & Juliet, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty in the great canon of narrative classical ballet. More than anything it fills me with feverish joy to anticipate what future delights Christopher Wheeldon, Joby Talbot and the Royal Ballet have in store for us, and to know that ballet is far from a dying art. If The Winter’s Tale is anything at all to go by – and I truly believe it is – then the future of ballet in the 21st century is looking as bright and beautiful as can be.

Emily Romain

30th April 2014

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