How to make a Christmas ballet hit: behind the scenes at Scottish Ballet’s Snow Queen

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

Ballet, like bread sauce and green chartreuse, is often just a Christmas thing and the UK’s national companies plan their schedules accordingly, surrendering to the cold fact that a Christmas hit can cross-subsidise less bankable sections of the repertoire. The Nutcracker is the safest choice — English National Ballet’s unbroken run began in 1950 when sugar rationing was still in force — but Christopher Hampson, director of Scottish Ballet since 2012, is committed to the ‘Five in Five’ programme that marks the company’s golden jubilee: five new full-length productions in five years.

Hampson’s The Snow Queen will be the second in the series and is touring with 57 performances, half of his company’s annual output. It will be a success: it has to be. ‘These winter productions cannot fail. That’s the business model of any ballet company. It’s so often an entry level not just for children but for adults too. They need to be entertained and it needs to move them.’ Portion size is also a key factor. Hampson is determined to get the curtain down inside two hours: ‘I’ve never had anyone complain that anything’s too short. I can’t sit through Sleeping Beauty any more,’ he admits, shaking his head. ‘I’d rather stick needles in my eyes.’

The Snow Queen’s title is pure catnip for the box office but while Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 story of a small boy kidnapped by an icy enchantress has been staged countless times, the plot is oddly uninvolving and eminently forgettable. ‘One of my favourite research tasks was to sit down with people and ask: “Tell me the story of The Snow Queen,”’ says Hampson. ‘And no one can. They all know she’s vile but they don’t know why.’

Walt Disney first proposed a full-length, part-animated treatment back in 1937 but the project was repeatedly shelved and only saw daylight in 2013 as Frozen, a story of estranged sisters, a dastardly prince and a talking snowman, far removed from Andersen’s morality fable. One writer for this magazine found Frozen ‘fabulously irritating’; Jordan Peterson hedged his bets with ‘an appalling piece of rubbish’, but it was the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Hampson saw the movie on its first release: ‘I loved it.’ His ballet has similarities to the Disney treatment — his Snow Queen also has a sister, the Summer Princess — but he retains Andersen’s central couple, Gerda and Kai, to provide pretexts for the all-important pas de deux. The two-act scenario was devised in collaboration with Lez Brotherston. The Liverpool-born designer has been the making of countless dance productions — Christopher Gable’s Dracula, everything by Matthew Bourne — but has tended to shy away from classical ballet: ‘It’s like it’s a competition for what is the prettiest tutu whereas I go in and ask “Why a tutu?”’ That said, there is a fair mileage of tulle for the Snow Queen and her henchmen.‘The Christmas ballet is a big money-earner,’ acknowledges Brotherston. ‘There is pressure to have a certain amount of spectacle. It’s not going to be contemporary dance, a bentwood chair and a wooden back wall.’

Brotherston’s spangles are already starting to fill the racks in the Glasgow wardrobe department where they rub shoulders with the costumes for his grittier street scenes — a tweedy, monochrome world enlivened with the odd fall of snow. The corps de ballet and soloists are kept busy with a street circus, a giant toy theatre and what Sir Frederick Ashton would have called ‘Gypsies’ (the fretwork caravans are a dead giveaway) but are here rechristened ‘Travellers’. The first-act ensemble is a hive of activity. Hampson checks the characters off on his fingers: oyster seller, hot-chestnut man, mistletoe salesman: ‘It’s got a whiff of Petrushka about it.’

Not that Mikhail Fokine’s 1911 ballet, which included a blacked-up man worshipping a large pineapple, is likely to get a UK or US revival any time soon. ‘You just can’t go there,’ sighs Hampson. ‘But I did study the opening of Petrushka to help me get into my street scene because it’s so brilliantly done. It’s not the dance in it, it’s the mis-en-scène. I want to give everyone something to do and a reason to be there.’

Crowd scenes of this type are normally the perfect excuse for a spot of flash dancing but Hampson actually pulls a face at the word ‘bravura’. ‘It’s not “do a number, finish, applause, do the next number”, it’s through-composed choreographically. I can, hand on heart, say I don’t think there’s any dancing in this that doesn’t move the story forward. There’s room for applause but not because someone’s done a quadruple tour. There are no divertissements for the sake of it.’ A cynic might wonder whether Scottish Ballet could reliably field that level of virtuosity, but they are clearly at home in Hampson’s character-driven choreography.

Along the corridors and down the staircases of the company’s airy studios in the old Glasgow Tramway an Act One run-through is under way. Discarded pointe shoes and water bottles litter the floor, dancers in stretchwear and practice skirts lie around in the splits or with a leg-warmered leg stretched impossibly along the barre as they watch Royal Ballet-trained Jerome Anthony Barnes swizzle through a grand pirouette. The rehearsal piano rattles through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol supplemented by the squeak of slippers, the pitter-pat of pointe shoes and the scary whoosh of Lycra as a body slithers from an overhead lift to
a supported arabesque.

The score for The Snow Queen has been pieced together by Richard Honner but Hampson, a trained musician, was closely involved in the selection, which uses snippets from The Snow Maiden, ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ and the haunting Invisible City of Kitezh: ‘I like working closely with the musical arranger. I love playing the piano, I love following scores.’

In the next-door studio the lead couples — all five casts — are memorising the lovers’ closing duet, a sequence Hampson completed only hours earlier. He admits that the nearest his ballet comes to a full-on grand pas de deux is for the ‘wrong’ couple: a no-holds-barred duet for the Snow Queen and her enchanted victim. His finale skates perilously close to diminuendo. ‘It’s a very gentle, loving, poignant pas de deux. That’s how Kai and Gerda end their story. I guess it is low-key,’ he concedes. ‘But hopefully rather charming.’

As the couples in the studio take up their poses I get a sense of the effect Hampson is aiming for. The anthemic Christmas Eve suite ripples forth from the piano and the five Gerdas and their five Kais gaze upstage. Hampson has a plan but it will depend on the ingenuity of his lighting and projection designers: the northern lights. He smiles up at the bare white wall.

‘We’re working on it. It’s going to be very, very beautiful…’

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