Mark Monahan: It could be argued that taking the framework of a Shakespeare play but ditching the words—as choreographers inevitably must—is like buying a 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, tipping the contents down the sink, and keeping the bottle. What, then, is the irresistible lure of Shakespeare for creators of dance?

Christopher Wheeldon: (laughs) He wrote good stories! Of course, the beauty of the language is what draws people to stage them and read them, but he also wrote terrific plot lines—that’s why I chose The Winter’s Tale. There are some really strong characters, and the situations are operatic in scale. Operatic situations and emotions, and good physical characters, lend themselves very well to story ballet.

MM: And yet, amid the panoply of past Shakespeare adaptations, no choreographer, to my knowledge, has ever attempted The Winter’s Tale. Is that correct?

CW: I think so. Although it wouldn’t have mattered to me if someone had adapted it before, just out of interest I went online and looked at various sources, and no—no one wants to do the bear, I think.

MM: So how are you tackling Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction—"Exit pursued by a bear"—referring to the hapless, about-to-be-eaten Antigonus?

CW: I can’t give that away!

MM: But why do you really think no one has previously attempted to turn this play into dance?

"When you’re making a ballet . . . you look for clues and for poetic moments that will translate well physically."
CW: It’s often called a "problem play," and, although I could be shooting myself in the foot by saying this, it’s actually easier to watch the story unfold than to explain it. Of course, I’ve worked a lot on the synopsis of the actual show, and have thinned out the secondary characters and some side plots. Also, this was one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and according to Nick Hytner [former director of the National Theatre], the writing is fairly jumbled. Nick believes that Shakespeare had got a little bit lazy by the time he wrote The Winter’s Tale; it’s not as well constructed as many of his other plays, which makes it quite complex to read. But Nick told me not to get caught up in the minutiae of trying to understand every word. MM: That sounds like good advice. CW: Absolutely—but then, when you’re making a ballet, you can never get too caught up in the text. You look for clues and for poetic moments that will translate well physically. You have to boil it down to story and characters. MM: A vital question when adapting The Winter’s Tale in any form is: comic or serious? The play is essentially three acts of high drama, and then two infinitely lighter acts, which can prove a jolt for audiences. How have you approached this?
CW: There are a lot of characters in The Winter’s Tale, and you have to choose whose story you’re telling—in my case, it’s Leontes (King of Sicilia). It’s impossible to avoid the tragic circumstances of Act I, and a further challenge of doing this story in dance is that Shakespeare solves a lot of problems by having things happen offstage—but you can’t do that in a ballet, unless you want to rely heavily on your program notes. That said, this is a ballet where I think it’s better if people watch the ballet having read their program, or at least have some idea of the story. MM: And how does your production progress after the dramatic first act? CW: Well, we’ve done the whole thing in three acts. Act II offers us a great opportunity for dance, more of a "pure dance" act, and [composer] Joby [Talbot] and I have invented our own kind of folk music and movement language. I think part of the poetry of this story is the contrasting worlds, and that’s where dramatic stagings often fall a bit flat. But our Act II is the moment for the corps de ballet to soar. It’s light and open and beautiful, and we need that. We need to breathe after the opening tragedy.
The Winter's Tale: A Tale of Two Kingdoms
Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
Dylan Tedaldi with Artists of the Ballet in The Winter’s Tale

MM: Your breakthrough piece back in 2001 was Polyphonia, and it was with that sort of abstraction that you made your name. But The Winter’s Tale is your second full-evening narrative ballet [at Covent Garden] in only three years, after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011. You’re clearly getting a taste for it.

CW: Yes. Yes, I am, though narrative sets its own challenges, and a story can at times feel restricting, because with the abstract world you get to go wherever your imagination takes you. Also, I work very much in the spur of the moment—I’m not a big planner.

MM: I remember you saying previously that you prefer to create your steps in the studio, with dancers.

CW: I do. I like working with the dancers. Obviously, something like The Winter’s Tale has taken a great deal of planning, but there’s been flexibility within that. Joby writes for the dramatic moments that we’ve pinpointed in our structure, but then I often veer off and move things around. It can be terrifying at times, because I don’t go into the room with everything planned out, and so when things aren’t flowing freely, it can send me into a bit of a tailspin.

MM: Similarly, what’s surely harder for you here than for choreographers adapting an established classic—but also, perhaps, potentially even more rewarding—is that the score is being built from scratch as you go along.

CW: Yes, it’s brand new. No one’s done it before, no one’s ever choreographed to this music—it’s our creation. And I do feel like the whole production belongs to us: Joby and Bob [Crowley] and me, and Natasha [Katz] as well.

MM: They were your composer/designer/ lighting team on Alice, weren’t they?

CW: Yes—we are very much a team.

MM: And where did the idea for this show first come from?

CW: It actually came from a conversation I had with Nick [Hytner] around the time of Alice—I was saying I’d love to tackle Shakespeare, and he asked if I’d ever thought of The Winter’s Tale. I’d already seen it live once, and remember being bored out of my mind—it wasn’t a particularly vibrant production. But I went back and read it, and saw several better versions both live and recorded, and, after submerging myself in the story for a bit, I thought, yes, why not?

MM: Finally, the body of work you’ve created over the past dozen years is not only very large, but also remarkably varied. Is there nevertheless something that you would say links all your pieces, from those shorter abstract ones to The Winter’s Tale?

CW: There are some artists who approach their work from a very personal standpoint, meaning that they don’t really care what anyone else thinks. It’s about what they need to express, and I don’t think I’m like that. I think a lot about the audience—I love to make work for other people to look at. I approach each work thinking: Ok, this is the company I’m going to make it for, this is the kind of audience that’s going to be seeing it. What do I think would work for them?

Mark Monahan is the dance critic for the Telegraph (U.K.).