Mary Brennan

THE year is winding to a wintry close... For Scottish Ballet, it has been a year of golden-glowing celebration with the company’s 50th anniversary marked by visionary initiatives that reached out, as never before, to audiences all across Scotland and beyond. Now, as darkness comes early and the temperatures drop, it’s time for the Snow Queen to make her chilling presence felt, her mythic realm and magical powers conjured up onstage in a new seasonal ballet for all the family.

Christopher Hampson, Scottish Ballet’s artistic director and chief executive, has had The Snow Queen on a personal ‘to do’ list for quite some time, but it’s only now that he feels he’s found the right collaborators and has the resources to create something that’s distinctive – fresh and unique – for the company he’s led since August 2012. As Frozen 2 arrives on cinema screens, Hampson is well aware that for many children – and, indeed, their adults – pre-existing impressions of The Snow Queen fairytale are probably tied into Disney’s animated musical fantasy.

Spoiler alert! "Let it go..." is not part of the soundscore for Hampson’s ballet. Instead, his story of conflicted sisters, dangerous challenges, and true love battling against supernatural forces, is danced to music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – most of it sourced from his (now rarely heard) operas.

“With operas,” says Hampson, “you’ve already got a sense of strong narrative driving the music. When I made Hansel and Gretel in 2013, we used the Humperdinck opera – orchestrated, not sung – because the characters, the moods, the whole atmosphere and subtext of the story, was woven into the score. There was wonderful colour there, and you could really build on that with the choreography. So this time, when it came to creating a new Snow Queen, we thought of using another opera, and the obvious one to look at was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden.”

In fact, a lot of that particular piece has since melted away. Thanks to Richard Honner, who recently retired from his post as head of music, Hampson’s new ballet has a superbly bespoke score that draws on the composer’s orchestral suites and concert ‘fantasias’ as well as various sadly neglected operas – The Snow Maiden, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, The Tsar's Bride, The Tale of Tsar Saltan and Christmas Eve among them. What Honner so meticulously wove together across some 30 or more extracts, is a real sense of the mystical, elemental forces that fired Rimsky-Korsakov’s imagination. Brooding forests, windswept mountains, overgrown paths – the kind of lonely places he explored on his country walks – all chimed vividly with the Russian folklore and traditional rituals that he carried in his head and heart.

For Hampson, the composer’s expressive attachment to nature fitted in with the ideas of time, place and seasonal change that he, and designer Lez Brotherston, were drawing together into their version of The Snow Queen. Hans Christian Andersen’s episodic fairytale was, says Hampson, too much of a sprawling canvas to compress into a family-friendly two-act ballet. But it did have a character who spoke with a real immediacy to him – and that was the Robber Girl. “We already had our dramatic triangle of the Snow Queen, Kai – the young lad she kidnaps – and Gerda who, for love, is determined to rescue him.

"But Lez and I felt we wanted some kind of ‘back-story’, some kind of underlying motivation which explains why the Snow Queen is so determined to sweep down and inflict such chilling misery on the landscape and the people. So we decided to give the Snow Queen a sister, a summer princess if you like, who – and I don’t want to give too much of the plot away – travels to the town where Kai lives.

"However she’s disguised as a pickpocket called Lexi... She’s our ‘Robber Girl’ and like Andersen’s character she is a real mix of good and bad traits. And I think audiences find that kind of rogue individual interesting and intriguing. They want to know ‘Why is she here at all? Why is Kai is so important to her? Will she be a friend or a foe to Gerda when Kai disappears?’ And Lexi, of course, knows exactly who took him... and how hard it will be for Gerda to rescue him. I think young children, especially, will warm to Lexi because she clearly doesn’t live by the everyday rules – but then they have to ask themselves, would they actually trust her? ”

Is the Snow Queen a similarly ambiguous character? Again, Hampson has aimed for something more than a stereotype. “Actually, I think – I hope – that Lez and I have edged her away from innate evil and cruelty. She’s definitely not nice – but there are reasons why she behaves as she does. It’s up to audiences to make their own judgements on her, and her actions.”

Bringing her to life on stage, meanwhile, is Scottish Ballet Principal Constance Devernay. In fact, Devernay has already encountered a version of this mythic character – she danced the leading role in Kenneth MacMillan’s Le Baiser de la fée (1960) when Scottish Ballet revived it in 2017 as part of A National Celebration of the choreographer at London’s Covent Garden. That was a one-act response to a Hans Christian Andersen short story Isjomfruen (The Ice-Maiden) in which one icy kiss leaves a young man forever in thrall to the implacably chilling enchantress.

Hampson’s two-act Snow Queen builds in far more details, culled from various sources, and introduces the motif of the magic mirror and the far-reaching consquences when it shatters. One of those outcomes is the Snow Queen’s crown – Brotherston’s striking design is fashioned out of glinting slivers of mirror glass... and yes, it is a fairly heavy head-dress. There are also opulently embroidered robes – they too, are weighty, but Devernay would readily tell you that making light of such imposing costuming is just one part of discovering who the Snow Queen is, and how to convey that inner landscape to an audience.

It’s a challenge she clearly relishes. She says it’s “a real privilege to have a new ballet and character created on me – and very special. Working with Chris has been a real partnership, whereby I learn to absorb Chris's movement vocabulary and embody his vision of the role, whilst adding my own artistry and creativity. Through this creative process, I am learning more about myself. I am able to express myself more freely as an artist and I can't wait to open The Snow Queen.”

While Devernay is exploring nuances of interpretation, the whole company – dancers, technicians, orchestra and all – is, likewise, getting under the skin of the story. Lez Brotherston’s designs have ensured we can see – and instantly understand – that The Snow Queen narrative spans two very different worlds. The real world, where Kai and Gerda come from, is not so far away from our own – it’s set in the early years of the 20th century, in an industrial city like Glasgow. As Christmas approaches, the seasonal circus comes to town. And, just to add to the scary shivers that are in both the music and the plot twists, the Snow Queen is revealing her power of command over the forces of winter. Soon she’ll send her snowflakes swirling across Gerda’s path, hoping the girl will become so lost and so cold that she’ll give up her attempt to find Kai. For Hampson – as with his earlier ballets, Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel – highlighting elements of the natural world alongside the supernatural ones in old fairytales anchors their themes and meanings in a world we can recognise.

“Spring and Winter, and all that these seasons represent to us, are very much a part of this Snow Queen,” he says. “An intrinsic part of the journey that our main characters all go on, led there out of love and loyalty. Fierce family love and loyalty between the sisters, as much as the love that means Gerda can’t ever give up on Kai.”

It’s a heart-warming message carved out of the chilling ice and snow, and it ends Scottish Ballet’s 50th anniversary year with a fine creative flourish that showcases the many talents – off-stage as well as on – that are at work in our national ballet company.

The Snow Queen premieres tonight (Saturday 7, December) at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh