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.

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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.

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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.

Romeo and Juliet, RNZB

St James Theatre, Wellington, August 16.

Francesco Ventriglia was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet when he proposed making a new Romeo and Juliet to replace Christopher Hampson’s highly regarded version, made in 2003 to mark RNZB’s 50th anniversary and revived for four more seasons. Ventriglia’s tenure didn’t quite work out as planned and in November last year, two years into the job, it was announced he would leave the post in June. He would however stay on as a guest choreographer to complete R&J.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham as Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Hampson’s version was set in the 1950s. Ventriglia returns the story to the 15th century and Italian aristocratic life, vividly evoking a society in which excitable young men with not enough to do are constantly on the prowl for mischief while young noblewomen must face the prospect of marrying Prince Wrong to shore up the family’s standing.

Renaissance Verona comes up a treat in British designer James Acheson’s sets and costumes. He was clearly the right man for the job, what with a mantelpiece laden with Oscars including for The Last Emperor and Dangerous Liaisons. This is a man who knows his way around opulence. The elder Capulets gleam in crimson, Juliet shimmers in floaty white and pastels and the inevitable harlots make whoopee in sexy swagged frocks that are a riot of saturated colours, set off by fabulous boots. Business must be excellent.

The only disappointment is that Acheson – one assumes he must take the blame – has apparently agreed to fall obediently in line with classical ballet’s inviolable harlot rule. It states that women in this profession must be identified, without fail, by a desperately unbecoming explosion of frizz on their heads (cf. Manon). Most tiresome.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Kirby Selchow, Katie Hurst-Saxon and Veronika Maritati. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

This irritation aside, Acheson’s design is a powerful character. There are great arches, a wide central staircase and tall columns that deftly redefine spaces. For the balcony scene Juliet at first appears, Rapunzel-like, in an opening carved out of a tall, otherwise faceless tower that speaks of a material world that has stood, and will stand, for generations to defend its inhabitants from envious outsiders (or perhaps a young man who might want to take liberties).

We don’t know why the Capulets and Montagues hate one another but it doesn’t matter. Their enmity is woven into the fabric of their lives, as is religion. It must be observed. In a brilliant touch, Juliet’s bedchamber is dominated by a huge painting of Madonna and Child under which Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage, mute testimony to the role Friar Laurence plays in the tragedy and the inescapable influence of the Church.

The visual richness is a wonderful match for Prokofiev’s music, which conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington played to the hilt at the opening. They gave urgency and sweep to the big moments that give brass and percussion occasion to let rip and McKeich drew lush playing from the strings. While the sound was more persuasive at full bore than in the score’s more intimate sections (possibly a function of the St James acoustic), McKeich’s reading of this exceptionally familiar music gratifyingly offered new things to hear in it.

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Abigail Boyle as Lady Capulet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Ventriglia responds to the music with choreography that is always fluent and apposite but not greatly revelatory or distinctive. He does, however, give the staging plenty of piquant flavour, a result, no doubt, of his collaboration with dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti. Their work pays handsome dividends. There is no alteration to the broad sweep of the narrative – everything is in its expected place – but close attention is paid to the spaces in between. You see this at the Capulet’s masked ball when Tybalt warns Juliet off Romeo with the smallest shake of his head, a moment that adds texture to their relationship. Don’t do this, he’s telling her. Don’t go there. It’s the tiniest thing yet adds to our understanding of the relationship between the cousins. There are a myriad other examples that give characters nuance and actions a reason for being. Of course Tybalt, who sees what’s going on, would let Juliet know he knows.

Most striking is the depiction of Lady Capulet and her relationship with Tybalt. At the masked ball their desire is barely suppressed and when Romeo kills Tybalt, Lady Capulet’s grief and rage explode like napalm. She rips off the mask of propriety and doesn’t care who sees the naked passion beneath. Just in case anyone was under the misapprehension she was mourning a favourite nephew, Lady Capulet marks her territory with a voracious kiss almost as shocking as the one Oscar Wilde’s Salome gives the head of John the Baptist. Abigail Boyle’s ice-and-fire Lady Capulet was a sensation, well matched by Paul Mathews’s deeply attractive Tybalt.

Not surprisingly, the younger lovers came to look a little pallid in the shadow of such drama, or at least did on opening night. Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham acted engagingly and danced their series of complicated pas de deux with much skill. Skelton is handsome and an able partner, Graham is adorable and both were very sweet, but neither clawed their way to the peak of great tragedy nor plumbed the depths of exhilaration and desperation.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Massimo Margaria was a wild Mercutio, Filippo Valmorbida enchanting as Benvolio (I think he’d be a rather good Romeo) and Laura Saxon Jones all elbows and daffy kindness as the Nurse. Mayu Tanigaito stood out in the quartet of Juliet’s friends and dances Juliet at some performances, partnered by Kohei Iwamoto, who managed to make something of the fairly thankless role of Paris on opening night. Jacob Chown was tremendously good in the tricky part of Lord Capulet, who has to keep up appearances as a man of substance in the face of his wife’s barely veiled contempt.

Romeo and Juliet ends in Wellington on Sunday August 20 then tours to seven cities around the country, ending on September 24.