On March 23, 2020, the Royal New Zealand Ballet announced the suspension of all rehearsals, performances, and community events until the spring—the company joining an ever-growing list of arts organisations affected by Covid-19. The future of their 2020 season now in doubt. “Venus Rising,” due to premiere in May, has been postponed until August. “The Sleeping Beauty” remains tentatively programmed for October, and “Dangerous Liaison” has been removed from the current season entirely.
The impact of these changes is monumental for a company like RNZB; they structure their seasons around touring, with every mainstage production travelling throughout New Zealand. The 2020 program had “Venus Rising,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” and “Dangerous Liaisons” set to travel to eight cities. As the pandemic grew and nationwide restrictions came into place, the rescheduling of “Venus Rising” meant revising the national tour to include seven cities.
Layered on top of this immediate loss is a more devastating fact—that RNZB’s historic all-female choreographer season may not occur (or receive the warm welcome it deserves). When Artistic Director Patricia Barker revealed her future vision for the company, the ballet world salivated. No institutional ballet company has every presented an entire year of repertoire created only by women. And with works by Alice Topp, Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa, and Danielle Rowe—to name a few—one could be nothing but excited for the line-up. Now, with everything in jeopardy, it was almost impossible to see how the RNZB would navigate their immediate future.
The arrival, then, of the “Live in Your Living Room” initiative was a welcome delight. On April 3, 2020, the company’s digital season launched with the broadcast of “Hansel and Gretel.”
Episode One: “Hansel and Gretel”
Loughlan Prior’s “Hansel and Gretel” is uninhibited, pure fun. It has everything you want in a ballet – beautiful choreography, sumptuous costumes, and a narrative that draws you in until the very end. Using elements from the Brothers Grimm version of the tale, originally published in 1812, Prior pays homage to the history of the fairy-tale whilst adding a few delicious twists of his own. These twists being hallucinogenic ice-cream, surreal gingerbread men, and a cannibalistic witch who loves cabaret.
Shaun James Kelly (Hansel) and Kirby Selchow (Gretel) shine as the protagonists which is by no means an easy feat. As noted in the digital programme (RNZB have made programmes and casting sheets accessible online to accompany each performance), there is a perceived difficulty when it comes to adult dancers portraying child characters. What this production does so beautifully to combat the problem is focus on the vulnerability of the characters to show their innocence rather than stating it outright. Through Kelly and Selchow’s characterisation, Hansel and Gretel are portrayed as miniature adults who are aware of their poverty. Their clothing, designed by Kate Hawley, is simple yet practical; a stark contrast to the other children in the ballet who wear crested blazers and embellished hats.
The most striking aspect of the whole performance, however, is the world Prior, Hawley, and composer Claire Cowan have created. This version of “Hansel and Gretel” is not your traditional fairly-tale; it does not present a homogenous world set in 1800s Germany. Instead, what we see a dichotomous realm of restraint and excess. Act One is mysterious, monochromatic, and menacing. It pays homage to the silent black-and-white films of the 1920s. Shades of grey engulf everything and feed the underprivileged life of Hansel and Gretel. By contrast, Act Two is a sugar-coated cabaret. There is an excess of everything: colour, food, music, dancers, and movement. The Witch takes advantage of Hansel and Gretel’s situation by presenting them with all that they don’t have. The gingerbread house is a complete sensory overload.
Prior’s “Hansel and Gretel” may not have been initially programmed for 2020, but it is a smart choice to launch the RNZB’s digital season. It presents a world, unlike our own at the moment—one that is sweet, vibrant, and delicious. A perfect slice of ballet to distract audiences from reality, even if it is just for a minute.
RNZB will broadcast productions from their archives every week on their Facebook page. Links will appear 30 minutes before each broadcast and are free to view. Broadcast times may vary so please check the information given on the company’s website.