TOURING: Hansel & Gretel (Royal New Zealand Ballet)

Review by Brigitte Knight

Wellington, NZ. 5 November 2019. Hansel & Gretel by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo credit: Stephen A’Court. COPYRIGHT ©Stephen A’Court

That Freshly Baked Taste

Staging a brand new, full-length ballet is a milestone for any company and a relatively rare occasion for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. This world premiere of Hansel & Gretel is a significantly larger undertaking, therefore, than reproducing a classic, or reimagining a ballet with an existing score and cast of characters. Every aspect of this production has been created from scratch from the original music by composer Claire Cowan, to the imaginative cast of characters. Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographer in Residence Loughlan Prior has created works premiered in New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Canada and the United States, and dance films screened in New York, Denmark, San Francisco and Cannes. Hansel & Gretel is his first full-length narrative ballet, and it is a distinctly kiwi creation, with New Zealanders generating the choreography, score, design and conducting the orchestra.

From the moment it opens, Hansel & Gretel is a rich and delightful production. Prior has worked deliberately to utilise every available production element to conjure a world that the audience are invited into. The ballet is set in the 1920s silent film era, drawing on aesthetics of music hall vaudeville, cinematography, and fashion, and infused with the spirit of creativity and innovation synonymous with the time. Pleasingly, Prior has discarded the misogynist tropes so prevalent in many traditional fairy tales gone is the evil stepmother abandoning children in the woods, gone is the motherless girl, gone is the man to the rescue. Prior retains the wicked witch, however, and when she is transformed in Act Two she is revealed to be a near-sighted, crab-walking, wonderfully hyperbolic man in drag. 

One of the real strengths of Hansel & Gretel is its use of layering and stylisation. Black-and-white-movie style opening titles, complete with flickering projection and scratches on the film, create a thoroughly cinematic transition from real life into the world of the ballet. Interplay between layered gauzes, animation and shadow provide an innovative approach to set-building, and create the illusion of extra space on the restrictive Opera House stage. An effortless synthesis between design by Kate Hawley and lighting by Jon Buswell moves the ballet through three tonal states: monochrome for the everyday world, blue for the forest, and garish technicolour for the realm of the Witch. Arrangement of these colour palettes provides a sense of momentum to the production, and creates great contrasts; the Ice Cream Witch disrupts the monochrome of Act One with her gingerbread henchman bicycle chauffer, simultaneously enticing and sinister, foreshadowing things to come. Prior plays with time and proportions as devices within the production, freezing and manipulating time to feature or explore characters, utilising stylised design representationally and to distort scale. Hansel and Gretel’s family home, for example, is an empty apple crate, and The Ice Cream Witch peddles ice cream cones the size of small children.

Cowan, the first woman to be commissioned by the Royal New Zealand Ballet to create a full-length original score, achieves a similar synthesis with Prior’s choreography one of the major benefits of the artists working together from early in the creative process. The music is cinematic, lively and superbly narrative. Its incorporation of different rhythms and some unusual instruments (bicycle horn, animals bones) strike the right balance between feeling fresh and contemporary, and remaining accessible for classical choreography. Leitmotifs for the major characters and Cowan’s clear emotive intention enable the audience to connect quickly with an unfamiliar score. On opening night adults clap along in Act Two, a sure sign of success.

Choreographically, Hansel & Gretel has plenty to offer. Prior continues his use of layering with ensemble choreography, ensuring the movement is highly entertaining and varied. He achieves characterisation through movement motifs, and although these are occasionally repetitive they succeed in building familiarity for the audience in a ballet where every character or creature is brand new. Prior gives his cast distinctive movement vocabularies, and some get his signature style infused in the choreography they dance. The Sand Man’s solo, for example, is unmistakeably Prior’s work. Hansel & Gretel incorporates features to satisfy ballet fans including a “white act” with sparkling tutus and Fairy Cavaliers, imaginative romantic pas de deux between the Mother and Father, and virtuosic solos and partnering from the Queen and King of the Dew Fairies.

A dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet since 2010, Prior has the advantage of knowing and playing to the individual strengths of the senior artists in the company. The result is a heart-warming number of outstanding performances. Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies is all extension in pizazz, and is partnered superbly by Allister Madin as King of the Dew Fairies. Their speed and control in the delivery of difficult choreography leaves no question as to why these two are Principal Dancers. Nathan Mennis as The Sand Man gives his strongest performance with the Royal New Zealand Ballet to date, his movement equal parts weightless and crisp, his manner ethereal and other-worldly. Leonora Voightlander and Massimo Margaria as Food People are saccharine and wonderfully fluid, and, like many of the more adult subtexts in Hansel & Gretel, deliberately border on the grotesque. Joseph Skelton as the Father delivers a beautifully nuanced and intelligent performance. He is generous and detailed in his movement, and sensitive to his role as the character most strongly connected with the real world and the theme of poverty. Nadia Yanowsky as the Mother is well suited to Prior’s choreography, and given plenty of opportunity to celebrate the beautiful articulation of her legs and feet. Katharine Precourt as The Ice Cream Witch is a sickly sweet, spritely narcissist, and Paul Mathews throws caution to the wind as The Transformed Witch, giving every movement and expression detail and power. Mathews’ characterisation is fabulously camp, exaggerated and sinister, and makes full use of the comic choreography he is gifted. Rightfully, Hansel and Gretel danced by Shaun James Kelly and Kirby Selchow steal the show. The two dancers embody their characters perfectly, creating a nuanced, viable, recognisable sibling relationship that is the foundation of Prior’s Hansel & Gretel. Kelly and Selchow are both remarkable performers, and it is pleasing to see Gretel as protagonist, becoming the hero of her own story as she rescues her brother from the Witch’s ghoulish recipe. 

Fairy tales require a good dose of magic, and Hansel & Gretel has plenty. Some of the best moments are the fastidious cleaning Birds, performed by seven local children, the Sand Man manipulating an animated moon, the intermission imagery and the forest of forks, the Gingerbread Men and their oversized chocolate eclairs dance, the manic and delightful Boogie Men and the fantastic the smell of gingerbread permeating the theatre as the Witch constructs her gingerbread house. The Royal New Zealand Ballet has created a delicious and indulgent Christmas ballet with Hansel & Gretel, which promises to grow even slicker as the season continues to bake.

Prior and the Royal New Zealand Ballet actively recognise that the ballet deals with the very real issue of poverty, and it is great to see this acknowledged in the promotional material and online. A comprehensive list of links to partnered charities (in each place they will perform) is on the company’s website, and Food Bank collection bins will be in each theatre’s foyer.

Hansel & Gretel debuted at the Wellington Opera House and tours to Palmerston North, Napier, Christchurch, Invercargill, Dunedin and Auckland. 

Choreographer: Loughlan Prior
Costume/Set Designer: Kate Hawley
Composer: Claire Cowan
Lighting Designer: Jon Buswell
Conductor: Hamish McKeich

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