Christmas is coming and festive ballets abound. In Scottish Ballet’s new production, The Snow Queen, choreographer Christopher Hampson retells the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale for the stage and a modern audience, while maintaining the wintry wonder that makes the story so beloved in the first place.

Constance Devernay (Snow Queen) and Andrew Peasgood (Kai) © Andy Ross
Constance Devernay (Snow Queen) and Andrew Peasgood (Kai)
© Andy Ross

A significant change from Andersen’s version is the role of the robber maiden who is now the Snow Queen’s sister, the Summer Princess (danced by Alice Kawalek). Despite the initial similarities, these are not the Disney Frozen princesses. In a nice departure from the overused good Summer vs evil Winter dichotomy, both Kawalek’s Summer Princess and the Snow Queen (Bethany Kingsley-Garner) are ethereal jerks with no regard for the mortals they toy with. The Summer Princess’s first action on visiting a Dickensian Christmas town square complete with gas lamps, falling snow and street vendors, is to steal some money from the cup of the town beggar. Meanwhile, to spite her sister, Kingsley-Garner’s Snow Queen enchants the aged-up Kai (danced by Barnaby Rook-Bishop) away from his betrothed Gerda (Constance Devernay) and sets her new slave to work crafting an ice-crystal throne that would rival Game of Thrones’ Iron Throne for pointy discomfort.

The Snow Wolves © Andy Ross
The Snow Wolves
© Andy Ross

The travelling circus that comes to town and dominates the first act is full of fun. Ribbon-spinning acrobats contort and tumble, a pair of clowns prank and tease the crowd, and a ringmaster blows on his bugle. Nicholas Shoesmith as a flexing, strutting strongman is particularly amusing, God’s gift to women in fringed leopard-print shorts. Juxtaposed with the joviality are segments where the Snow Queen freezes time to taunt her sister. The action slows and Kingsley-Garner glides frostily around the stage, building the tension until she freezes Kai’s heart with glittering shards of glass. Rook Bishop’s transformation from doting to furious is chilling and the dance where Gerda and the clowns try to win him round with humour while he grows increasingly violent encapsulates the contrasting tones of the entire act.

Richard Honner has adapted music from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas. Removing the vocals gives the music a background quality – suitable for a ballet – but the score brilliantly takes a front seat when the Summer Princess takes Gerda to meet a troupe of travelling bandits. Onstage, Gillian Risi plays a solo fiddle while the fortune-teller (Araminta Wraith) shows Gerda visions of Kai and the Snow Queen. The lazy, relaxed fiddle music increases in intensity as other instruments, from the pit, join in and the bandits dance with clapping, spinning and fantastic straddle jumps before finally turning on Gerda and she flees.

Gillian Risi in <i>The Snow Queen</i> © Andy Ross
Gillian Risi in The Snow Queen
© Andy Ross

Abandoned by her guide, Gerda travels alone through the Snow Queen’s winter. Paul Pyant’s lighting design complements the show's themes perfectly, with creepy silhouettes that could be trees, icicles or mirror shards. These shadows are more threatening than the dancing snowflakes, ferocious winter wolves and pagan Jack Frosts that Gerda encounters on her journey. Despite the Jack Frosts’ eerie frozen masks and the prowling wolves, this sequence feels anticlimactic after the more menacing forest bandits. What should have been a heart-racing culmination of her character development, the moment when Gerda produces a shard of mirror to scare away the winter wolves, is cheapened slightly by her earlier use of the same shard to threaten the Summer Princess and escape the bandits. That said, the dancing is beautiful, the scenery and music are delightfully wintry, and Devernay skilfully portrays Gerda’s growth from a naïve lover in the first act to an adventuress who learns to rely on herself to earn her happy ending.

The Snow Queen’s palace is a geometric kaleidoscope of ice shards and Gerda’s confrontation with the Snow Queen has some very nice moments such as when Kingsley-Garner is lifted across the stage by Rook Bishop, as if the flying Snow Queen were swooping down on Gerda. However, once they are joined by Kawalek, back in her golden Summer Princess tutu, the storytelling gets murky, even although the dancing continues to maintain its high standard. In a somewhat disappointing climax that Gerda plays little part in, the sisters fight, and eventually both conveniently fall through a hole.

Scottish Ballet presents the world premiere of Christopher Hampson's <i>The Snow Queen</i> © Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet presents the world premiere of Christopher Hampson's The Snow Queen
© Andy Ross

Thankfully this isn’t the end of the story, since the Snow Queen’s powers are further reaching. Kai is still traumatised, and it is only through Gerda giving him the space to heal that he gets better. Deverney and Rook Bishop make an adorable duo, sitting back to back, learning to trust each other again and the happy ending comes from compassion rather than merely slaying the baddie.

Overall, Scottish Ballet’s Snow Queen is a winter treat for the whole family. After the performance, Hampson made an announcement promoting Rook Bishop to principal dancer, making a magical evening even more memorable.

****1