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.

Hey Parents: Free Books for Your Kids!

D.C. is an expensive city, making it a hard place for young families to thrive. Just last week MarketWatch reported that Washington is the most expensive city for a family of four in the entire United States. The city’s free Pre-K-3 is a boon for local families and while a new program from the DC Public Library won’t have the same impact as free child care, it’s a pretty great perk for families making it work in the District.

Launching in February, you can sign up now to receive one free children’s book a month from the DC Public Library. The Books from Birth program is open to all children 4 years and 11 months old or younger, and the offer is per child in your household.

The Books from Birth program is designed to encourage reading among, and to, DC’s youngest residents. Research shows that children that live in households where they are read to on a daily basis show up to Kindergarten with more advanced vocabularies. As described in an article by Tina Rosenberg, a landmark 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that, “Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words.” It’s not entirely clear why the word gap exists, but research has shown that access to books in the home affects the likelihood that parents will read to their children. The Books from Birth program will allow all children in-home access to high-quality, age-appropriate books.

DC’s book donation program may draw inspiration from a related policy initiative in Providence, Rhode Island. Providence Talks was the 2014 winner of Bloomberg Philanthropies $5 million dollar Mayors Challenge, and a recent article summarized, “After decades of failed educational reforms, few policymakers are naïve enough to believe that a single social intervention could fully transform disadvantaged children’s lives. The growing economic inequality in America is too entrenched, too structural. But that’s hardly an argument for doing nothing.”

Kudos are due to Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen for putting this initiative on the agenda, and the Mayor and members of the DC City Council for supporting it.

Over time we’ll see what impact the program has on school readiness and student achievement. In the meantime: hey parents — free books for your kids! Don’t forget to sign up here.

This post was published here on UrbanScrawl.

Impersonation of Minorities by White People: an Abridged Literary Guide

The 2015 edition of the Best American Poetry book series was recently published by Simon and Schuster including the poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” by Yi-Fen Chou.

The poem’s inclusion was the subject of immediate controversy because the author is actually a white man from Indiana named Michael Hudson, and he admits to having selected the Asian pen name to increase his chances for publication.

In an author note published with the poem Hudson explains, “After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me.” Hudson’s actions infuriated many readers who saw his methodology as an insult to Asian authors and an abuse of white privilege.

Pen names have a long and complicated history.

Three decades ago the author Danny Santiago received the Rosenthal Award for literary achievement for his first person account of a Chicano teenager before being revealed as a 70 year old white man.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “In 1984 the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded one of its distinguished fiction prizes to a new and presumably young Chicano writer named Danny Santiago, for his first novel,Famous All Over Town. Subsequent to the award it was revealed, with some embarrassment, that the newly discovered Chicano writer was not Chicano at all: ‘Danny Santiago’ turned out to be the pseudonym of seventy-three-year-old Daniel James, author of several previously published books, and better known as a playwright and screenwriter.” Chicano authors were outraged that the book might be included in the pantheon of Chicano fiction.

Manuel Ramos describes, “The Simon & Schuster editor who bought Santiago’s book stated that the author had hidden his identity and masqueraded as a Chicano (using Chicano slang in his letters to the editor)… [and] the awards committee confessed that they might have had second thoughts about giving the novel their prize, had they known its author was ‘Anglo’ and not ‘Chicano.’”

Michael Hudson informed anthology editor Sherman Alexie of his true identity in time for the editor to pull the poem prior to its publication in Best American Poetry 2015 but Alexie decided against doing so, explaining,

“As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading… Do you see what happened? I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American… I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”

Like catching a cab while black, the act of publication tends to be more difficult for minorities. Alexie’s decision to keep the poem in the anthology was a defense of the practice he calls “literary justice.”

An author may hide his or her identity for a variety of reasons, including to access publication and to increase sales. Relatively common changes include rhetorical cross-dressing (a woman adopting a name to appear male) and Anglicization (Joseph Conrad’s birth name was Józef Konrad Korzeniowski.)

After the Danny Santiago controversy Edwin McDowell wrote about the “distinguished literary tradition of women using men’s names”, which extends to this day. Matt Soniak has described how the author of the Harry Potter books became J.K. Rowling because, “Joanne Rowling’s publishers weren’t sure that the intended readers of the Harry Potter books—pre-adolescent boys—would read stories about wizards written by a woman.”

Lorrayne Carroll, author of a historical study of male appropriation of the female voice, Rhetorical Drag: Gender, Impersonation, Captivity, and the Writing of History, commented, “These impersonations create readerly expectations through what Foucault calls ‘the author function’. That is, think about how you read a work by ‘anonymous’ versus your expectation of—and disposition toward—a work by ‘Shakespeare.’”

Pen names affect the public’s perception of the published words through ‘the author function’, in the cases of Joseph Conrad and JK Rowling impacting the chances for commercial success. Washington, D.C.-based poet Regie Cabico – self-described ‘Fairy godmother of spoken word poetry’ – argues that, “impersonation has to be done with love, empathy and extreme care.” Comparing Michael Hudson to an author examined in her book Rhetorical Drag, Lorrayne Carroll agrees, arguing,

“Comparing Cotton Mather writing as a female captive in 1697 to Michael Derrick Hudson writing as Yi-fen Chou in 2015 reduces or elides the wildly different circumstances that conditioned each choice. That said, both Mather and Hudson acknowledge, through their choices, that impersonation gives their writing some kind of advantage. For each man, the advantage results from using a voice associated with situated and embodied experiences that neither apparently have had.

Hudson’s choice to write as Chou should be read within a cultural terrain shaped by identity politics; race, gender, and class inequalities; and restricted access to shrinking publication venues, particularly those with high status and pedigree, such as Best American Poetry. How we evaluate the ethics of authorial impersonation, then, is contingent on where we land in this terrain. For me, the choice to appropriate an identity distinct from one’s own must take into account the power relations within which one publishes…. We might ask whether that choice has had a positive effect for others besides Michael Hudson. This is, finally, a political question about power, individual v. social good, and the growing issue of inequalities across so many dimensions of our lives.”

Is it ok to pretend to be black, or asian, or a man, or a woman? What do you think about the impersonation of minorities by non-minorities?

This post was originally published here on Urban ScrawlDC.