An austere wind-chill cuts though the very heart of Christopher Hampson’s new adaptation of the classic fairytale, “The Snow Queen.” This new piece, created for Scottish Ballet’s 50th anniversary, immediately eschews any notions of cosy familiarity with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, sanding down the twee sentimentality, while adding bold new elements of cunning. In this incarnation, with its tweedy, grey anytown location, populated by the poor and the needy, magic is used to nefarious ends, all the while ultimately retaining romance and sparkle. It starts with playful sibling rivalry, becomes a chase scene in unknown territory, before landing in a heart-warming, traditional wintry folklore homage.
Kayla-Maree Tarantola as Lexi becomes a pickpocket in sloppy civvies, providing a massive contrast to her titular sister, slipping through the streets with a feline pas de bourrée or two, stealing from bags and coats with busy nimble fingers. Meanwhile, Constance Devernay makes for an imperious Snow Queen, dripping with icy, imperious glamour, as she seduces the innocent Kai (Andrew Peasgood) away from his wholesome paramour Gerda (a wonderful, playful Bethany Kingsley-Garner). This love triangle has diamond-sharp edges—in this case, a shard of broken mirror, used as an ever-present weaponly threat. Devernay’s gorgeously light footwork emulates the sharpness of designer Lez Brotherston’s ubiquitous glass shards, en pointe toes spiking the floor with predatory precision. She is feather-light, but with beastly intent.
The most impressive, earthy choreography occurs when the circus blows into town, though. It is pure Angela Carter, straight out of the pages of Nights at the Circus. You half-expect Fevvers, the ribald showgirl, to sashay into the proscenium arch, drunk again and with a twinkle in her eye. Christopher Harrison, unrecognisable as the Russell Brand styled, sexy Ring Master, genuflects with redoubtable elan, tumbling and blowing fanfares on his trumpet, as his scantily-clad troupe of acrobats and dancers bring Vaudeville sensibilities and skittish ribbon dancing to the good townspeople. There are alcoholic, existential Clowns (Constant Vigier and Aaron Venegas) who really dazzle with their high-risk acrobatics and derring-do, and erratic, troubled personas. It would be incredible to hear their backstory. The Strong Man (Evan Loudon) and Ballerina (Alice Kawalek) hurl each other around with wild abandon. This inclusion of the circus people does not really add much to drive the narrative forward, though, save the sense that colour happens only when the show breezes in to the cold and windy streets. However, it is here that poor Kai is treated as a disappearing act by the naughty troupe, when he steps into the proscenium arch and is whisked away. Now you see him . . .
It’s towards the end of the piece that Kingsley-Garner really comes into her own, portraying Gerda as a more multi-faceted character. Where once only a dewy-eyed romantic partner in the first half, she is now transformed into a steely-eyed rival for the Snow Queen with glass slice in hand, ready to fight to get Kai back. Freeze frame vignettes are deployed to bring a cinematic sense of visual to the action, immensely effective when Brotherston’s set has darker shades of maroon and green in the twilight hours. The pas de deux between the Snow Queen and the hypnotised Kai is a less chaste proposition, characterised by swooning lifts and lowered eyelids, and Gerda has to find some inner strength to bring him round.
Only one scene feels like an ill-fit for the ballet as a whole. The Romani travellers in the woods are depicted as dangerous, feral and slightly unhinged, a real malevolent presence with their demented twirls and generally threatening disposition. Grace Horler as Mazelda the fortune teller dances wonderfully, yet seems incredibly cliched. The rest of the travellers, with their St Vitus Dance tics and steps are fine, and it is beautifully choreographed, but it feels like a dated addition to the piece, with a reinforcing of the notion of outsiders as figures not to be trusted. It leaves a slightly queasy after-taste. A more apposite band of figures can be found in the Jack Frost and Snow Wolf packs, whose wild jetées and slinky, dinky ice-rinky moves fall just the right side of folklore and menace. They strut, preen and leap through the woods, enchanting and spectral, as ephemeral as snowflakes in a snowstorm.
In the main, Hampson has created wilfully complex female characters with rich stories to tell. The men are slightly sidelined here, intentionally so. The male gaze does not come into play at all. Their duality is what makes the ballet so compelling and nuanced (any missteps aside). In this sense, it is a Girl’s Own riposte to male-driven narratives where the heroines wait around to be saved by men, with little to no agency of their own. The two sisters may be nasty, selfish and prone to bad, self-serving and egocentric behaviour, but there are slivers of vulnerability here and there. They’re not infallible, after all, and meet a sticky end for their transgressions. With a twinkling score from Rimsky-Korsakov played by the terrific orchestra and such fierce ensemble work, Scottish Ballet are a formidable force, and at their peak.