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.

Verve, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 5

The Australian Ballet’s contemporary triple bill Verve, having a Sydney season this year after its premiere in Melbourne last year, presents works from the company’s three resident choreographers, each with a distinctive style that serves the program well.

Veteran Stephen Baynes, who has held his post since 1995, is a classicist who puts his women on point and on a pedestal. Tim Harbour, who was appointed in 2014, offers hard-edged abstraction. Alice Topp, named a resident choreographer last year, makes work with emotional and sensual appeal. (Each was, or in the case of Topp still is, a dancer with the company.)

Harbour was nurtured through TAB’s Bodytorque new works program – where has that gone? – and so was Topp, with an eye-catching series of works that marked her out as a real talent. She was rewarded with a mainstage work in 2016, Little Atlas. Her latest, Aurum, is a significant step forward.

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Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Constant Variants. Photo: Daniel Boud

Verve opens with Baynes’s elegant Constant Variants from 2007, danced to Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Its world is one in which partners address one another in a courtly fashion and women, who exude an air of containment and mystery, are admired by men as if they are precious jewels.

On opening night Ako Kondo took the role made on Madeleine Eastoe and made something different of it. Jon Buswell’s soft lighting summons thoughts of dim cloisters and Eastoe’s gentle radiance glowed like a candle in the dark whenever she appeared. Kondo has a different kind of appeal – more sophisticated and less knowable.

Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015, finishes the night with a frenetic – and, it must be said, formidable – display of athleticism. Eight men and four women stride on and off to a thunderous score by 48nord, looking in spectacular form as they fling themselves across the stage or at one another. On opening night the eye was particularly caught by Dimity Azoury, Jill Ogai, rising talent Shaun Andrews and Brett Chynoweth, who was made a principal artist last year and not before time.

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Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Daniel Boud

Topp’s Aurum is inspired by the sophisticated Japanese art of kintsugi, by which broken ceramics are made whole again with gold lacquer. The use of gold honours the value of the original piece and at the same time highlights the damage suffered. The cracks show and become part of the piece’s history. Topp sees an analogy with human relationships. There will be breakages and flaws; and while restoration is possible, nothing will be exactly as it was.

Aurum is danced by five couples wearing simple white garments of Topp’s design. The mood is intense and yearning, supported by the rippling, swelling music of Ludovico Einaudi, a Topp favourite, and Jon Buswell’s golden lighting.

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Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in Aurum. Photo: Daniel Boud

Aurum is at its best in the smaller moments – a man and woman stand in separate pools of light far from one another and raise an arm in farewell, a woman’s head rests on a man’s chest as if she is listening to his heartbeat, the shadows of two men seem to take on a life of their own, a man leans backwards and a woman cradles his head. When the group dances in unison the effect is undeniably rousing but the meaning less clear than the touching duos danced so tenderly on opening night by Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks, Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson. The first three are principals artists while Mathieson is still in the corps. Her fervent commitment was outstanding.

In a big coup for Topp so early in her mainstage choreographic career, Aurum will be seen at New York’s Joyce Theater next month as part of its Australia Festival, alongside Baynes’s Unspoken Dialogues (from 2004) and a new work from Harbour.

Verve ends in Sydney on April 25.

Coppelia

Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 24

GREG Horsman’s appealing new production of the 19th century comedy Coppelia gives it a human scale and an Australian setting. It is the late 1800s and we are in the South Australian town of Hahndorf, settled in 1839 by German migrants and thus celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. I don’t think Queensland Ballet has a visit to Hahndorf on the 2014 schedule but it really should.

The essentials of the original ballet remain. Franz, not the brightest bloke, falls for a remote beauty who is, in fact, a life-sized mechanical doll. His sidelined girlfriend, the plucky Swanilda, has to come to his rescue when he falls into the clutches of the man who made the doll, Dr Coppelius, and in the third act everything comes right.

Clare Morehen and Huant Junshuang in Queensland Ballet's Coppelia.

Clare Morehen and Huang Junshuang in Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia.

In Horsman’s revision Dr Coppelius (the wonderful Paul Boyd) is a migrant from the Old World, a medical man rather than a dark-hearted magician. In a prologue that mixes stage action and effective sepia animations, Coppelius and his young daughter are seen preparing to leave their home in Germany. But the girl is sickly and dies on the sea voyage to Australia. Coppelius’s doll-making is an attempt to restore her to him.

Meanwhile the little town goes about its business, which mainly involves lots of larking about to the pretty Delibes score, neatly arranged by QB’s music director Andrew Mogrelia and played by Camerata of St John’s. The good folk of Hahndorf are a lively lot – there are some rather cheeky Scots – but even the Lutherans don’t seem to mind a bit of banter. If I were queen of the world, however, I would place a ban on children holding hands and prancing about in a circle. Surely there are other ways in which youngsters can move.

Horsman’s push towards realism, or as far as you can go when lifelike dolls are involved, has its pluses and minuses. In setting up his story Horsman takes a little time to get the action moving but he does build a pleasing picture of community and individuals within in it. In his sweetest inspiration he brings on the local footy team – Australian football, of course. Some of the QB lads need to work on their handpass skills and on opening night the Sherrin was definitely too soft for an effective bounce, but the audience enthusiastically applauded a high mark. Yes, in Brisbane.

The downside is a lack of magic in the second act, in which the usual cave of wonders is reduced to a couple of half-finished automatons. It fits Horsman’s scenario but is far from a sparkling setting for Swanilda’s centrepiece impersonation of Coppelius’s doll.

For key moments – including Swanilda’s solos and the big Act III pas de deux – Horsman has kept choreography familiar from traditional versions and at the opening performance Clare Morehen (Swanilda) and Huang Junshuang (Franz) despatched the high points with ease and verve. Eleanor Freeman and Vito Bernasconi lit up the stage as the second pair of lovers and Lina Kim’s joyous dancing delighted every time she appeared with Swanilda’s flock of girlfriends.

Also delightful are Hugh Colman’s sets, which bring to mind colonial paintings (Louis Buvelot perhaps), and Jon Buswell’s exquisite lighting, in which bright day fades to velvety evening. This kind of quality is possible because in a venture that makes a great deal of sense, Coppelia is a co-production between QB and West Australian Ballet. Perth will see the ballet next year. Expect the footy to go down extremely well indeed.

Coppelia ends on May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 28.