The Royal Ballet – Hansel and Gretel [Linbury Studio Theatre]

Hansel and Gretel – ballet in two acts to choreography by Liam Scarlett

Hansel – Ludovic Ondiviela
Gretel – Elizabeth Harrod
Father – Johannes Stepanek
Step-Mother – Kristen Mcnally
The Sandman – Donald Thom
The Witch – Ryoichi Hirano

Liam Scarlett – Choreography
Dan Jones – Music
Jon Bausor – Designs
Paul Keogan – Lighting design


Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 11 May, 2013
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

James Hay as Hansel & Leanne Cope as Gretel (Hansel and Gretel, The Royal Ballet, May 2013). Photograph: Tristram Kenton / ROHFor too long the artistic policy of Covent Garden’s subterranean Linbury Studio Theatre has been independent from the resident ballet and opera companies, leading to jumbled programming, and, more importantly, an inadequate use of a very useful space. Liam Scarlett’s new ballet, Hansel and Gretel, marks the beginning of a shift which will, one hopes, lead to more exposure for artists from the two companies in what is a less daunting environment, and of some of their talented younger members.


Anything by Scarlett carries much expectation as he is the most promising choreographer to have emerged from The Royal Ballet in many a year. His work thus far has not been entirely successful, but his inventiveness, musicality and clear choreographic talent mean that when he is good, he is very, very good. Hansel and Gretel is his first full-length work and it is good that it takes place in the Linbury instead of the vast expanse of the ROH’s Main Stage because it allows him to explore and to experiment. However, the shadow of Matthew Bourne looms large in the overall concept in the late-Fifties/early-Sixties design aesthetic and a dance-drama focus. Hansel and Gretel also comes perhaps a little too close on the heels of the successful revival of Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis in the same theatre (Pita, a long-time collaborator of Bourne’s, shares the same approach) so it is only when the cast engage in clearly balletic movement that it truly pulls away and becomes something unique to Scarlett.


Steven McRae as Sandman (Hansel and Gretel, The Royal Ballet, May 2013). Photograph: Tristram Kenton / ROHThe Linbury stage is used as a traverse, with audience on both sides of the action, and the dance area is divided up by designer Jon Bausor into areas which represent the children’s house, the outside, and the witch’s hut. This is sometimes effective but, by definition, reduces the space for dancing with the result that the movement in the house looks cramped. The coup de theatre is when the hut and garden rise up on a stage lift to reveal the nightmarish downstairs in which the children are kept and abused. Here, the design is highly effective, with the dismembered limbs of some giant teddy bear strewn around, and a bin full of children’s toys.


Scarlett evokes a very modern interpretation of the familiar fairy-tale, bringing it closer to the original unpleasantness of such stories before Disney got its hands on them. With the body of the his mother spilling out of the oven, Ryoichi Hirano’s Norman Bates’s-like Witch twitches and grimaces in twisted emotion. His relationship with the puppet-like Sandman (a superbly expressive Donald Thom despite a disturbingly smiling facemask) is strange, perverse even, and their dancing together becomes supremely dysfunctional. Scarlett is clearly trying to create a movement vocabulary in which the essence of the character exists, much in the same way of Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, and it is interesting that his most successful attempt should be with the masked Sandman, whose limp-doll movements are nonetheless highly expressive. Thom is a young dancer in the company whose physical and expressive abilities are impressive.


James Hay as Hansel, Leanne Cope as Gretel, Steven McRae as Sandman & Brian Maloney as Witch (Hansel and Gretel, The Royal Ballet, May 2013). Photograph: Tristram Kenton / ROHThe children’s father and step-mother are strangely drawn characters – he is a drunken bum who fails to pay bills and hits his wife, yet we are supposed to feel sorry for him, she is at first some suburban slut who nevertheless returns to him and looks for the missing children. Johannes Stepanek is too handsome and physically strong to convince fully as a wash-out, although Kristen McNally has a high old time as the chain-smoking vamp, all sneers and suspender belts. Elizabeth Harrod is impressive as the older Gretel and is particularly good when standing up to her step-mother or breaking free from a kennel to lay into the Witch. Ludovic Ondiviela has the difficult task of playing a little boy, a challenge always teetering on the edge of archness. At first his gestures and facial expressions were simply too large – he, like all the dancers, are used to projecting to the back of the Amphitheatre – but, sensitive artist that he is, he quickly realised this, and toned things down considerably. He is incarcerated and abused by the Witch (evocations of stories which all too frequently hit the international news) and, strangely, when he realises that the Witch has lost a mother too, exhibits what seems to be Stockholm Syndrome, and befriends his abuser. It is his sister and the Sandman who break up the cosy relationship which leads to the work’s denouement: the Witch’s suicide, the children’s return to an empty house and their bizarre establishment of a seemingly incestuous ménage with the Witch’s picture hanging in place of their mother’s. I don’t claim to understand it all and here Scarlett shows the same weakness of over-complication that marred his Walter Sickert / Jack the Ripper ballet Sweet Violets. Additionally, the whole work seems over drawn-out, with scenes lasting just that little bit too long. It would perhaps have benefitted from judicious pruning to a long-ish one-act, instead of the present two hours including interval. The same could be said about Paul Keogan’s recorded commissioned score which is very ‘filmic’ indeed, at its most effective in the disturbing sounds of the Witch’s lair.


Hansel and Gretel is certainly not without fault, but there is much which impresses from this highly promising young choreographer. It is right that The Royal Ballet is allowing him to develop his talents at least in part away from the pressures of the Main House stage and it is good that the Linbury Theatre is able to be used for such a vital purpose.



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