Scottish Ballet’s new The Snow Queen is an eminently revivable festive classic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scottish Ballet’s The Snow Queen (choreography by Christopher Hampson and music by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov): Dancers of Scottish Ballet, Scottish Ballet Orchestra / Jean-Claude Picard (conductor). Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 18.12.2019. (SRT)

Scottish Ballet’s The Snow Queen© Andy Ross


Choreography – Christopher Hampson
Music – Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (arr. by Richard Honner)
Design – Lez Brotherston
Lighting – Paul Pyant

Cast included:

The Snow Queen – Bethany Kingsley-Garner
Gerda – Constance Devernay
Kai – Barnaby Rook-Bishop
Lexi – Alice Kawalek

The Snow Queen is such an obvious candidate for a wintry festive tale that it makes you wonder why nobody has yet turned it into a ballet, or at least one that has become well established. Christopher Hampson has gone a long way towards doing just that with Scottish Ballet’s Christmas 2019 show, however. It works on lots of levels, and I would be surprised if the company doesn’t pull it out and restage it in a few years’ time.

Ironically, however, the one weak link in its chain is Hampson’s choreography. It is handsome, clean and effective, but it didn’t contain ‘Wow’ moments. The crowd scenes are symmetrical, if a little prosaic, and the opportunities for choreographic colour in the Gypsy scene of the second half were slightly wasted. Nor did things take off in the dance of the Snowflakes and Jack Frosts, which was a bit repetitious.

What it does have, however, is narrative clarity, and that’s what you need for a festive tale. The scenario is neatly drawn, introducing the character of the Snow Queen’s sister, the Summer Princess (Lexi), who leaves her to find a handsome young man. The ensuing rupture is what explains the Snow Queen’s malevolent pursuit of Kai, and it is their (rather abrupt!) reconciliation in the final scene that eventually breaks the Snow Queen’s spell. The big company number in the first act is done with admirable clarity, so that the eye is always drawn to where it needs to be, and the overall aesthetic of sharp angles and shards of ice permeates the whole visual atmosphere with a pleasing unity. Lez Brotherston’s designs for the ‘ordinary’ folk, with their grey-silhouetted townscape and mid-century costumes, reminded me of Lowry, before transforming into something appropriately fantastical for the Snow Queen’s palace, and the set for the Gypsy Camp has bags of atmosphere to it. All of those things make it a great ballet to which to bring someone for the first time, a shrewd Christmas move for the company, and even the youngest members of the audience in the performance I saw must have understood most if not all of the unfolding story.

The principal roles, danced by Scottish Ballet regulars, are all done very well, led by a heavily made-up Bethany Kingsley-Garner as the Snow Queen herself, whose dances with Barnaby Rook-Bishop’s Kai are, tellingly, much more entrancing than Kai’s duets with Constance Devernay’s Gerda. In fact, those duets are the highlights of the evening, spellbinding in the way they dancers get themselves caught up in the music, and in one another.

The music itself is a surprisingly effective mash-up from across Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral (and operatic) catalogue. The numbers are very well chosen and arranged by Richard Honner, and Scottish Ballet’s orchestra sound like they are having a great time playing music they would never normally get the chance to go near. Conductor Jean-Claude Picard keeps everything moving with a lovely sense of pace, and the balance of the heavy percussion to the rest of the orchestra is very nicely judged.

There are one or two issues with pace – the first half rushes much of its story while the second has very little narrative at all – but otherwise Hampson and his team have created an eminently revivable classic that we could end up seeing again and again. A more fitting end to the company’s 50th anniversary year would be hard to imagine.

Simon Thompson

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