The Snow Queen; Nutcracker review – cold comfort

Scottish Ballet closes its year-long 50th anniversary celebrations with a new ballet inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Snow Queen. The plot is simple: Gerda loves Kai. The magical Snow Queen also fancies Kai. She gets him. And after staging a rescue mission, Gerda gets him too.

This production is sumptuously designed, intelligent, sexy and romantic. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian winter music throbs suggestively, while Lez Brotherston’s ravishing designs and Paul Pyant’s lighting form rich tableaux, fusing the jewel-toned romanticism of 1940s Hollywood with glowing Victorian Christmas card scenes, music-hall gaudiness and papercut projections of falling leaves and thickening ice.

Andrew Peasgood’s Kai and his beloved Gerda, danced by Bethany Kingsley-Garner, are heartbreakingly innocent. In their lovely introductory pas de deux they flutter innocently against each other, leaning and wilting. Christopher Hampson’s choreography fuses wholly with the characterisation, even down to the smaller incidental roles.

There are occasional lapses when this family show dips into gestural, pantomime-style storytelling. The gorgeously detailed village and forest world of Kai and Gerda trumps the Snow Queen’s ice realm, which has a flat, Ikea quality. When the queen first appears it’s as a stalking villain with clashing cymbals, swathed in a silly frock. At the end, when she conks backwards off the stage like a sack of anti-frost gritting, it prompts a loud snigger from the audience.

Nonetheless, this production preserves the ambiguities of Andersen’s tale: its sexual longings, taboo relationships and lure of transgression. Constance Devernay’s prowling Snow Queen, with her white, glinting, shard-like allure, vampiric self-possession and glacial expression, is not an enemy but a thrilling catalyst. At one point Gerda desperately copies the queen’s fleet, spinning pirouettes, but falters, always a half-second behind.

‘Extraordinarily sexy’: Andrew Peasgood as Kai and Constance Devernay as the Snow Queen. Photograph: Brian Anderson/Rex/Shutterstock

Through her, Kai and Gerda are pulled out of their dreamy love story and sliced into sharp solo definition. Gerda gains grit among some hip-swaying, thigh-slapping forest bandits who fight and flirt in the firelight. She becomes a fierce lone missionary, stabbed into the ground en pointe.

Meanwhile, Kai’s lost weekend in the queen’s lair gives him some much-needed sexual confidence. Their duets are extraordinarily sexy. He peels away in rapture, his shoulders and head curving back whenever she touches him.

In its intelligent reading of the source material, its exquisite design in the first half, and the delicate fusion of choreography and character development, The Snow Queen gave me tingles long after the final, blissful duet between the reunited Kai and Gerda.

English National Ballet’s Christmas confection, a revival of its 2017 Nutcracker, is essentially a series of lavish set pieces dreamed up overnight by a little girl, Clara, played adroitly by Sophie Carter. Her toys come alive, a handsome acquaintance crops up and she herself transforms – into lead principal Erina Takahashi. Takahashi is elfin and querulous at the start of her adventure, maturing into queenly surety.

Watch a trailer for Nutcracker at the Coliseum.

Wayne Eagling’s choreography offers the dainty classical delights of stag-like men lifting delicate ballerinas playing snowflakes and fairies. But it also ripples with irony and self-mockery throughout. Clara’s parents’ friends glide with jaded grace; a ridiculous trio of “native” dances offers a snaky, orgiastic “Arabian” fandango; the evil Mouse King’s minions ambush and disrupt the ballerinas’ pattern-making.

Peter Farmer’s design is gloomily self-aware. Clara’s family host elegant but staid parties in the impeccably furnished town house. Her dream offers adventure and romance, rather than her real future as a society wife. The Mouse King, a genuinely disturbing dream figure, is everything Clara’s world is not: uncouth, ugly, rotting, colourless. Performed with sinister bite by Daniel Kraus, he kicks out of his jetés, twitches and mimics other characters. But he also symbolises rebellion, before the gilded cage traps Clara for good.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Snow Queen
Nutcracker ★★★

The Snow Queen is at the Festival theatre, Edinburgh, until 30 December, then touring
Nutcracker is at the Coliseum, London, until 5 January 2020

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