Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Auckland, December 5.

It is no small thing to make a full-length narrative ballet that wins its place in a company’s repertoire. Many are attempted and many end up as red lines on a balance sheet unless sets and costumes can be sold or repurposed. Most happily, Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel for Royal New Zealand, his first full-length commission, looks like a keeper and justifies artistic director Patricia Barker’s appointment of him last year as RNZB Choreographer in Residence.

Southern hemisphere companies are certainly not averse to a season of Nutcracker at Christmas time but few – Queensland Ballet is an exception – want to fill a precious slot every year with a winter-wonderland ballet in summer. (QB’s artistic director, Li Cunxin, was at the opening night performance in Auckland so don’t be surprised if Hansel & Gretel turns up in Brisbane at some point.) It’s safe to say, though, that companies definitely want a family-friendly production leading into the festive season and Hansel & Gretel fits the bill. Purists may tut-tut that Prior excises the familiar, ultra-dark seam of cruelty embedded in later versions of the Brothers Grimm tale. The decision robs the narrative of the enlivening frisson of fear and there’s no denying it’s a loss. The upside? No nightmares for the little ones.

Hansel & Gretel

Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Stephen A’Court

All would agree that Kate Hawley’s designs look a million dollars under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Life in town is seen in moody monochrome and the enchanted forest where Hansel and Gretel take their rest after running away from home glows gently in gauzy tones. After interval Hawley ups the ante, and how, as Gretel and Hansel (which is what the story really should be called) fall into the clutches of a Witch whose effervescence is boundless. All those luridly coloured cakes and sweets to blame, no doubt.

New Zealand composer Claire Cowan’s new score is scrumptious enough to eat too, with a big, swelling film-score quality that supports the framing of the ballet as a silent movie. Cowan’s writing is as colourful as Hawley’s designs. It features unusual combinations of instruments and flavours drawn from eclectic sources – tango, Weimar cabaret, jazz – and combines them to make music that’s occasionally too rich for the blood but has all the adventurousness, romance, vigour and humour the story demands. Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra sounded wonderful with Hamish McKeich at the helm.

Prior’s choreography is most conventional in the first section, in which the good fortune of elegant townsfolk is contrasted with the poverty of Gretel and Hansel’s family. The parents are deeply loving, as a long – too long – pas de deux shows. It’s attractive but doesn’t fully earn its keep. When the children find their way to the forest things get more interesting choreographically, even if again dramatic balance would be better served by shortening the Dew Fairies’ dances.

Hansel & Gretel

Hansel and Gretel, The Sandman and Dew Fairies. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Once in the Witch’s lair, however, Prior has a firm grip on what is arguably one of dance’s most difficult assignments: to make ballet genuinely funny. It’s beautifully controlled mayhem all the way with the limelight-hogging diva and her entourage of Pink-Iced Gingerbread Men, chorus-line witches and slinky Food People. There are even jazz hands. Bless.

The company looked in tip-top form at the Auckland opening. Mother and Father were in the expert hands of Nadia Yanowsky and Joseph Skelton, Kirby Selchow’s Gretel was an engagingly sparky girl and Shaun James Kelly’s Hansel an inquisitive lad who still needed the comfort of his toy bunny. Katherine Precourt hammed it up hilariously as The Ice Cream Witch (that’s how she gets lures kids)  and Paul Mathews as her gleefully black-hearted true self, The Transformed Witch, could have a glittering career in panto in the future should he wish. In a ballet that offers women the strongest roles, Mayu Tanigaito swept all before her as the virtuosic Queen of the Dew Fairies with Forsythesque attack, drama and danger while Allister Madin, on leave from Paris Opera Ballet this year, endowed King of the Dew Fairies with sleek POB elegance.

And speaking of sweeping, there was a delightful cameo for children as the birds who ruin Gretel’s marking of the way back home. Here the breadcrumbs weren’t eaten. They were cleared away with brooms wielded by youngsters with adorable beaked hoods.

Hansel & Gretel transfers to Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland, on December 13 for three performances, ending December 14.