Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
December 11, 2019
The Snow Queen is this year’s festive offering from Scottish Ballet, directed by artistic director Christopher Hampson and with design by Lez Brotherston. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, and no doubt with its eyes on Frozen fans, it begins with a strong focus on three central female characters only to unfortunately lose this as the performance progresses.
We open peering through a spikey framed screen at two sisters, isolated in their wintry palace: the Snow Queen, danced by Constance Devernay, and the Summer Princess (or Lexi, as she will later be known), danced by Kayla-Maree Tarantolo. A projected murky vision of future sees Lexi in the arms of a bobble-hatted man, causing her to flee her sister to search for this vision.
The rest of the first act takes place in a slightly grainy yet still twee small town, glowing with a suitably Dickensian air. Lexi has turned pickpocket, and in one of the more nimble bits of group choreography, bobs between a constantly shifting assemblage of townspeople, rickety wagons loaded with wares, and preening couples.
Lexi is a rare female characterisation in the world of ballet: she’s furtive, sneaky, happy to jump and turn as much as the men. It’s an enjoyable character, slyly danced by Tarantolo.
We’re also introduced to childhood sweethearts Gerda and Kai (Bethany Kingsley-Garner and Andrew Peasgood). Kai turns out to be the man from Lexi’s vision. The foretold embrace happens in a context different to the romantic one envisioned, though it’s a stretch to catch this narrative point without close attention to the programme notes.
The Snow Queen reappears, and though her anger is apparently directed at Lexi for leaving her, it’s Kai that she decides to whisk away. The rest of the ballet follows Lexi and Gerda as they try to rescue Kai, yet it doesn’t substantially explore the potentially interesting dynamic of a contradictory pair teaming up to fight against the odds. Gerda is provided with an arc that could see her throw off her demure aspect, but it is not developed, while Lexi’s reappearance as the Summer Princess in the final scene is sudden and unexplained. She and the Snow Queen clash on an icy precipice, and the awkward delivery of this penultimate moment produces some surprised giggles on the part of the audience, in what should be quite a dramatic moment.
As expected with big Christmas productions, scenarios are set up so that we can enjoy the panache and athletic display of the dancers. In Act One, it’s the circus that’s come to town. There is the enjoyably ingratiating presence of the Ring Master, Bruno Micchiardi, but the strong man and athletic women are simplistically drawn, and the clowns don’t always have that floppy clowning aesthetic.
In Act Two, there’s a welcome foray into a bandit camp: I would have happily watched a whole ballet set here. The dancers relax, slap their thighs, and twirl with brio. A particularly star turn comes from the high-jumping Jerome Barnes as the bandits’ leader.
Brotherston’s designs are as elaborate as one might expect; reflective surfaces often gild the sides, prompting some nice moments where blurry reflections dance alongside the cast, apt for a work that begins with foreshadowing. The attention to scenography and a busy environment sometimes crowds and takes up the space of the large groups of dancers, however, particularly in the town and bandit scenes. Costumes are loud and bold, sometimes with success (in the Snow Queen’s frosty, glittering number, for instance) and sometimes not: again, the circus act seems brash without depth, colourful but lacking in zing.
Richard Honner has re-arranged the lesser known music of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: it trills along, coming alive for the bandits’ folksy dance.
Narrative ballet can go two ways: it can have a skeleton narrative that is merely the bones on which the ballet hangs its showy moments, or it can be a production where story is inextricably tied to the movement. The Snow Queen sits closer to the former, but the narrative isn’t seamless: in particular, it sets Lexi up as its emotional centre, before switching to Gerda in the final scenes. Kingsley-Garner and Peasgood are a wonderful pairing, but the ending given to them is lukewarm. The Snow Queen won’t disappoint any young audiences, or audiences seeking glitter and escapism in a classy night out at the theatre. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t quite hang together.
The Snow Queen is at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre to December 29, then tours to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Newcastle. Visit www.scottishballet.co.uk for dates and links for tickets.