"The Snow Queen"
Finnish National Ballet
Operaen, The Royal Danish Theatre
January 28, 2017
by Alexander Meinertz
copyright © Alexander Meinertz 2017
On the eve of Kenneth Greve’s departure as artistic director of the Finnish National Ballet, the former principal dancer of the Royal Danish Ballet, has brought his company to perform at his Alma Mater in Copenhagen as part of celebrations in connection with the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence. Greve has directed the Finnish company since 2008, but announced in July of last year that this would be his final season in Helsinki: during his 10 years as director, he has created new productions of “Scheherazade,” “Swan Lake,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Snow Queen” for the company, which was originally founded in 1921.
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Kenneth Greve’s production of “The Snow Queen” is a two-act, full-length ballet created on “The Nutcracker” template, complete with a wintertime opening scene set in bourgeois household, a snow storm interlude, and an act II divertissement of national dances. Like “The Nutcracker,” “The Snow Queen” tells the story of a boy and girl and the innocent but developing love between them.
Unlike “The Nutcracker,” however, Andersen’s fairy tale carries greater dangers: splinters from a magic mirror, that distorts the appearance of everything it reflects, have penetrated Kai’s eye and heart, making things good and beautiful appear ugly and abhorrent. When Kai is abducted by the maleficent Snow Queen, Gerda sets out to find and redeem him: unforgettably, Andersen describes how Gerda’s tears melt Kai’s frozen heart, and how his tears in turn expel the troll shard in his eye. There’s also a Christian religious dimension to Andersen’s fairy tale, which Greve has chosen to replace with a universal message of tolerance and goodness: don’t judge people by their appearance if they are alien or look different, judge them by their actions and what they carry inside.
Regardless, it’s a complex story to tell on stage. Recognising this, Kenneth Greve has introduced a narrator, Gerda’s grandmother, and created an exhilarating production, which is arguably more of a show and of less a conventional ballet.
Literally taking his “thinking-outside-the-box” approach all the way, the proscenium stage has been extended far into the auditorium, not as a stunt but to be actively and convincingly used by the characters throughout. During intermission, the Snow Queen drives through the foyer on a Segway, and you can bump into an ice bear at the bar.
At intermission, children are also given magic wands and asked to light them at the climax of act II, using their powers of goodness to help finally defeat evil. At that moment, as hundreds of blinking lights illuminate the theatre and darkness recedes you find yourself looking away from the stage and to people around you, seeing an audience so visibly engaged and moved, you realise that not just has Kenneth Greve got an audience hit on his hands: he has achieved something very rare in ballet, opening the hearts of his audience, not to aspirations and projections of lofty ideals and private emotions but in actually, in that moment, creating a bond between people, reaching out to each other with a shared sense of community.
With 92 dancers, the Finnish National Ballet is a big company. By the look of it, Kenneth Greve has all of them on stage, and he keeps them busy, pulling out all the stops with this production. While the choreography isn’t refined, it does the job, from the Snow Queen’s icy, hostile classicism to the stomping, thigh-slapping dances of the trolls: one memorable moment has the white corps de ballet piqué the stage in a circular formation with the trolls crashing about in an interior circle going in the opposite direction.
The curve only drops at the divertissements in Act II. Symbolising Gerda’s journey across the world and her maturing as a woman and as a human being, choreographically, they’re weak and predictable. Dramatically the journey is important in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, but in the ballet Greve should perhaps have skipped them, opting for a tighter structure for his work.
I’ve never seen a narrator more successfully integrated into a ballet than in this production, though, and Danish actress Vibeke Hastrup gives an outstanding performance in the key role of the Grandmother.
Cleverly resetting the story in Finland’s capital Helsinki, giving his audience familiar landmarks and vistas, lots of recognizable characters and folklore, even a sauna scene, Greve hasn’t just created an effective vehicle for audience building but, significantly, a production that also plays into questions of national identity.