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NBC takes on Shakespeare with ballet

I first discovered The Winter’s Tale when I saw it at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Prior to seeing the play, I didn’t know the story at all, which is special because there’s a trick ending in The Winter’s Tale like no other.

When I heard that the National Ballet of Canada was putting on The Winter’s Tale in its North American premiere, I was (understandably) excited. Though I don’t keep up with dance news, I was interested in how a classical play adapts to classical dance.

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon works absolute magic in the production. The best word I have to describe it is, quite simply, beautiful. Telling a story with movement is easier than one might expect, and in my opinion, just as easy as using words. Some complexities in the plot are lost, but only if you’re deliberately comparing the play to the ballet. As a stand-alone piece, it’s complete.

Being the thrifty theatregoer that I am, I had a seat that was located all the way up in the peanut gallery of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. And I’ve found, overall, that the “best seats” are not the ones in the front rows, especially when watching dance. Dance is about shape, about understanding from a macro point of view. Dance is not a shoulders-up activity, but one that engages the whole body. You really don’t need to be that close.

The Winter’s Tale contains one of the most famous stage directions in all of Shakespeare: “Exit, pursued by a bear”. I have seen several versions of the bear. One was an actor in a bear costume, another was a more abstract puppet version. But NBC’s version is by far the most effective. A huge bear was painted on a piece of translucent fabric that was fluttered to at first look like waves. Pulled up, though, it was clear that the bear stood on its hind legs. Folded in the opposite direction, it was on all fours and running towards its prey.

In the play, the character of Perdita (Elena Lobsanova) is not particularly strong. She is an essential part of the plot, but doesn’t have much personality. She’s just a sweet young girl who falls in love with a prince without knowing that she herself is a princess. But somehow, dance gives her another dimension, a layer of subtlety that gets lost in Shakespeare’s flowery text.

The Winter’s Tale is a strange story—neither comedy nor tragedy, and it’s usually labelled as a “romance”. Some parts are almost supernatural and dreamlike, such as the fantastic forest with golden trees where Act II takes place. This genre, more than anything, is what translates to dance. It’s not realistic—and was never meant to be that way.

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