English National Ballet’s The Snow Queen

“The Snow Queen”

English National Ballet presents the ballet to music by Prokofiev, arranged by Julian Philips
Scenario by Michael Corder, freely adapted from the fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen

The Snow Queen – Agnes Oaks
Kay, an orphan boy – Daniel Kraus
Gerda, a young girl – Lisa Probert
Gerda’s Grandmother / Old Gypsy Woman – Tamarin Stott
Gypsy Girl – Asta Basevicute
Gypsy Boy – Arionel Vargas
Two Wolves – Fabian Reimarr & James Forbat
Two Foxes – Erina Takahashi & Kei Akahoshi
Two Roses – Max Westwell & Xhanat Atymtayev
Sprites – Andre Portasio, Adrienne Schulte, Esteban Berlanga, Maria Sales, Nick Reeves, Senri Kou & Van Le Ngoc
The Reindeer – Laurent Liotardo
The Lapland Woman – Stina Quagebeur
Friends, Gypsies, Ice Maidens, Courtiers, Skaters and Villagers – Dancers of English National Ballet

Orchestra of English National Ballet
Gerry Cornelius

Michael Corder – Choreography and Direction
Mark Bailey – Designer
Paul Tyant – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 12 December, 2007
Venue: The Coliseum, London

The music used here for English National Ballet’s The Snow Queen is the score of Prokofiev’s final ballet, The Tale of the Stone Flower, composed in 1948. Choreographer and director Michael Corder had always wanted to create a ballet from the Hans Christian Andersen story of “The Snow Queen”, although the key to the staging lay in the music for Stone Flower. Corder has liked Prokofiev’s music since he was a teenager and had wanted to mount a ballet using that score. However, the source of the narrative to Prokofiev’s ballet was two obscure folk-tales that do not travel well out of Russia, thereby lacking the universal appeal of his famous ballets for Romeo and Juliet and for Cinderella, which Corder has already choreographed. However, listening to the music for Stone Flower, Corder began contemplating what he could do with the score and how it could adapt to the Andersen fairy-tale. He thought about it for a long time and two years ago mounted The Snow Queen as a full-length ballet.

Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen is probably the world’s most celebrated teller of fairy-tales, perhaps even more famous than Charles Perrault or the Brothers Grimm. He even came to Britain and met Charles Dickens who probably based his character of Uriah Heep on Andersen, who was by all accounts an odd cove. However, his stories often seem so real – some of them are based on his own fears and problems (such as “The Nightingale” and “The Little Mermaid”) – that everyone can identify with unhappiness and Andersen captures this perfectly in his tales.

“The Snow Queen” is a story of good versus evil and the two children who manage to overcome the first in place of the second. In the original story Kay and Gerda really are children, neighbouring kids who play together like brother and sister. Here the young readers can identify with the characters and picture themselves in the stories. It is generally children who still read Andersen’s tales, even though the stories often deal with weighty adult themes; but what could be more important than a fight between good and evil?

There is a complete range of characters in “The Snow Queen” which makes it eminently suitable for ballet: the two children plus old people, local peasants, gypsies and animals, so that a choreographer’s imagination can run riot. Michael Corder has refined the cast and changed some to make the piece more manageable but there is still a lot here to engage both a young audience (and parents). Corder introduces foxes and wolves as the Snow Queen’s cohorts rather than trolls or devils, and some of the other characters are condensed into sprites or gypsies or just omitted altogether.

However, the story remains the same. The Snow Queen’s sprites are creating a magic mirror out of ice, but when it is unveiled she sees not her own reflection but that of two friends, Kay and Gerda, in love in a summer landscape rather than the Snow Queen’s permafrost. The Snow Queen appears before the boy Kay who is mesmerised by her beauty. An icicle pierces his heart and eye and he collapses. Becoming lost to his friends, Kay is captured by the Snow Queen and her followers and disappears into the frozen night sky. Not knowing what has happened to him, Gerda has a dream about roses that tells her Kay is still alive. Eventually Gerda goes in search of Kay with a friendly reindeer as companion and arrives at the Snow Queen’s palace where Kay is frozen behind the Snow Queen’s mirror. If he can solve the puzzle he will be freed. Gerda’s actions ultimately unfreeze the mirror and Kay is liberated.

The Snow Queen ballet has all the romanticism of the Romeo and Juliet story in narrative terms but without having a really great Prokofiev score. The score for The Tale of the Stone Flower is good music, has lyrical and dramatic passages (and here including some discreet cuts from the original work and some borrowings interpolated from some of Prokofiev’s other works, such as a waltz from “War and Peace” and the scherzo from Symphony No.5, but as a whole the original score never quite gets to the heart in the way that Prokofiev’s writing for Romeo and Juliet does). Even for the big dream duet between Kay and Gerda, arranger Julian Philips has taken the love music from Prokofiev’s opera “Betrothal in a Monastery”. This works almost identically as the duet does in Romeo and Juliet. There’s that same surge of emotion coming through and this was helped by the two leads, Daniel Kraus as Kay and Lisa Probert as Gerda who dance their socks off in this particular duet.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing as both leads were in fact replacements for Juan Rodriguez and Adela Ramirez. There was also a third stand-in, in Asta Basevicute as the Gypsy Girl in place of Begona Cao. The principals were a little tentative at the beginning, although matters improved as the ballet unfolded. Agnes Oaks makes a splendid Snow Queen, full of majesty and as charismatic as a regal star should be, and she can dance up a (winter) storm to freeze your blood.Certainly the corps de ballet works hard and are kept busy playing the children’s friends, a group of gypsies, ice maidens and courtiers. The Snow Queen’s two wolves and the foxes make their presence felt and lend the staging an element of cruelty, while the Two Roses let the sun shine in again in Gerda’s dream of summertime. There are excellent and telling cameos from Laurent Liotardo as the Reindeer, Tamarin Stott as both Gerda’s Grandmother and the Old Gypsy Woman, and Stina Quagebeur as the Lapland Woman.

With its wintry theme The Snow Queen makes for fine Christmas entertainment as a change from the usual round of The Nutcrackers and at the ‘child friendly performance’ I attended, the tots seemed entranced by the action, even with a running time of nearly three hours. This is one for the young at heart who still enjoy a good fairy-tale.

  • The Snow Queen is at the London Coliseum until Sunday 16 December, followed by The Nutcracker (19 December to 6 January) and Swan Lake from 8 to 19 January
  • Tickets on 0870 145 0200

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