The Snow Queen
Adaptation and choreography by Christopher Hampson, music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
As Scottish Ballet's 50th anniversary year winds to a close, it's fitting that the choice of ballet to end that occasion is a mixture of the old and new. Christopher Hampson's newest ballet takes the form of the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen (Constance Devernay), stripped down from it's broadly over-complicated original form and into a smart and snappy series of playful vignettes.
The scene is set by the titular monarch and the Summer Princess, the pair bickering and larking in a sisterly fashion, before a snatched glimpse of romance sends the Princess off into the world and the Snow Queen smashing her mirror in a fit of bitter jealousy. So begins the time-honoured tale, as The Snow Queen's dark mirror pierces the chest of young Kai (Andrew Peasgood) and his love Gerda (Bethany Kingsley-Garner) must enlist the aid of the pickpocket Lexi to rescue him back and melt his frozen heart.
Hampson's stripped-down retelling of Andersen's fairy tale is filled with merriment, love and exuberance. Whether it's the joyful warmth and convivial fun of a winter's street met with the frenzy of the circus or the moon-kissed campfire of a bandit hideaway, there's a genuine sense of glee and cheer to the affair, one that ensures that this festive ballet never feels like it excludes the uninitiated, nor does it ever feel facile.
This can be seen in the movement as the dances aren't excessively technical, favouring the ensemble's co-operative spirit over lengthy drawn-out solos or ankle-breaking displays of extremity. Rather that playful spirit that runs through the piece combines the various dancers into whirls of interlinking enchaînement. There's also a delicious variety to the styles, from the wilfully scrappy bravado of the bandit camp to the whimsical ethereality of the dancing snowflakes and Jackfrosts, still managing to tie in the individual moments of Gerda's struggle and the Snow Queen's solitary musings.
There's nary a tripped step amongst the dancers either. The principals each manage to distinguish themselves in their individual roles. Devernay's portrayal of the icy Queen commands attention every time she steps onstage and manages to evoke a childish pettiness to her jealous monarch. Contrastingly, Tarantolo's dual roles as the Summer Queen and her alter-ego Lexi the pickpocket are kept distinctly different from one another and the rest of the performers. Lexi's sneak-thief ways are echoed in her movements and a sense of a jaded cynicism that shines through until she sees Kai and becomes enamoured.
Andrew Peasgood similarly gets a doubling of his styles as he plays between the romantic enamouring of Kai, deeply in love with Gerda until he comes under the thrall of the Queen's dark magic, whilst Kingsley-Garner's Gerda carries much of the weight of the ongoing story as she loves and loses Kai, then begs and pleads with Bandits, dances in snowstorms and runs from wolves in the ice.
Of course, no ballet could stand without great music, and the decision to use a curated medley of the works of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov proves a solid plan. Being able to pick and choose from his classical and operatic repertoire allows the ballet to move from the icily fantastical to the familiar and the obscure as the mood befits the scene. The Scottish Ballet Orchestra as usual excel in their task and the production takes the novel step of having Gillian Risi as a violin soloist on stage as a bandit musician, further adding to the immersive fun.
Particular credit must also be given to the hard work of Lez Brotherston on the design and aesthetic, as lit by Paul Pyant, the different places and people each defined in colour and style, such as the bare snowy tundra, or the snow-strewn street of the town and circus, contrasting with the Bandits and their camp, vibrant in reds and earthy browns yet never not surrounded by the spines of winter forest, with trees like jagged shards encroaching as the play continues, built of bare reflective metal and echoing the ever-closer presence of the Snow Queen's icy palace and her broken mirror.
Yet it's not a perfect experience, despite the fun and entertainment. The narrative isn't entirely clear and the dual roles of the Summer Princess and Lexi would have benefited from a reveal of sorts, as little that happens onstage makes clear that they are supposed to be the same character in disguise. There was also some lack of clarity in the finale, as the Queen's final Tosca-esque end was met with a handful of surprised chuckles, coming too suddenly and in almost but not quite a comic fashion, making it unclear if it was supposed to be silly or serious and managing neither. A small crib, but one that feels like it shouldn't have slipped by.
Yet it's still a fine new piece of stagecraft,and a wonderfully wintry crown to top an excellent season in a landmark year for Scottish Ballet. With Christmas just around the corner, you couldn't ask for much more than this for an evening of festive fun.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan