UpClose with the Stars of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale

The National Ballet of Canada returns to Washington D.C. with the U.S. premiere of The Winter’s Tale from January 19-24, 2016 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, the production is co-produced with The Royal Ballet and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.

A story of jealousy, tragedy, comedy, and redemption, the action begins when King Leontes wrongfully accuses his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione, and his best friend, King Polixenes, of an affair and decrees that Hermione’s child be abandoned in the wild.

I spoke recently with two of the ballet’s stars — Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer — about The Winter’s Tale and their roles in it. Born in Poland, Piotr Stanczyk (Principal) was trained at the State Ballet School of Poznan before joining The National Ballet of Canada where he’s performed principal roles in scores of ballets and premiered roles by John Neumeier, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmanksy, Wayne McGregor and Kevin O’Day. Hannah Fischer (Second Soloist) was born in New York City and trained at Canada’s National Ballet School before joining company in 2012.


Robert Bettman: The Winter’s Tale choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, is an acknowledged genius. Last year he won a Tony Award for his American in Paris, and his choreography is in repertoire at most every major Ballet company – including The Washington Ballet. This isn’t the first time either of you have had the opportunity to premiere roles for him. Can you share with us a little bit about the process with Wheeldon, and what we as viewers should look for in this new Wheeldon ballet?

Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.)

Hannah Fischer:  This ballet tells such a strong story, which is very Wheeldon-like. His style is big, dynamic, and intensely musical. And it always serves a purpose to bring the story to life. That’s what audiences are going to see I think, and be taken with.

Piotr Stanczyk:  Christopher is exceptionally professional, demanding, and he’s very particular with his ballets, the ways he wants to show it, to speak to the audience. He has a very generous approach that’s all about the audience. It’s a different way of working. As a dancer you have to be really concentrated in projecting what Christopher wants. This ballet, because it’s a story ballet, as performers we project the drama and jealousy of our characters… one of the challenges is telling the story, not just the steps, but the acting.

RB: Would you tell us a little bit about your characters?

HF: I play Queen Hermione. And she’s fantastic… innocent and kind, and in love with her husband and children even after she’s wrongfully accused of adultery. She maintains throughout a sense of dignity. She is the queen, and not matter what she will remain dignified and true, and that just shines.  She loves her husband and can’t understand why he’s accused her.

PS: Leontes is King of Sicily, and going through his story, he’s raised with his friends and they’re very close friends. And like us all as we go through life, he gets completely consumed with jealousy. And then the tragedy that he creates for himself from that. And many of us can relate to that at times in our own lives. We create stories. And Leontes doesn’t know if they are true or not but he cannot see through the rage and the jealousy and through that creates for himself a greater tragedy. The first act especially is very dark, and it’s about these very negative human emotions.

RB: Do you have a favorite part of this ballet that viewers can look out for?

HF: There are moments I’ve never experienced before in a ballet. For instance, dancing so closely and so personally with a child. And that’s magical. He’s such a sweet young boy, young in nature, and looking. After the nursery pas de deux, where Hermione is so initially confused by what her husband is accusing her of, and he calls the guards and she’s thrown about and eventually thrown to the floor clutching her child. And that would hurt! Being pregnant and being thrown around. And she stands up and looks at him but she doesn’t lower her head or give in. And she understands what must happen, what will happen, that she’ll be put on trial and will probably be found guilty. But nothing will break her and she’ll be queen forever. That moment shines for me.

PS: There are four solos in Act One through which you can see the progression of the man Leontes. And these show a very wide range of emotions, from being consumed with jealousy, to rage, and then doubt, and ending in complete depression and despair.

RB: For this production, your performances will be accompanied live by the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra.  How long have you been preparing in DC, and are there any moments we should look for with the dance and music together?

PS: We’ve done the ballet five weeks ago, and we started preparation in Washington last week. That’s not much time. But when it comes to the music I find it’s a very good floor, good ground. The first act is mostly bass and follows the character progression – pretty dark. And then in the second act it moves toward a folky theme, lots of dancing, brighter. In addition to the orchestra we have a band onstage, which is great and very unique. There’s a very wide range of music, and the conclusion is very different, very unusual.

HF:  The music really is fantastic, and it brings the location to life. It’s exotic and interesting, and as Piotr said, there’s live music on stage and hearing it – the second act is off the charts for me. Christopher Wheeldon is so musical too. The music and dance really go hand in hand together. They bring you down, they bring you up. Dance wouldn’t be much without the two. I would say it’s a very uplifting score.

This article was published here on DCTheatreScene.com.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.