If it’s this much fun, why not repeat it? The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Ryman Healthcare Season of Hansel & Gretel began again tonight, four years since its original première, and was every bit as enjoyable as it was in 2019.
It was also a very fitting tribute to the late Sir Jon Trimmer, the long-time dancer who joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1958, aged 18. Sir Jon’s passing was announced earlier today and a moving tribute was delivered live prior to tonight’s performance by RNZB board chair Dame Kerry Prendergast. The performance was dedicated to him.
Kirby Selchow and Shaun James Kelly were in the title roles, as they were on opening night in 2019, and savoured every minute of it—it felt like they were returning to familiar friends. And we the audience loved them for it.
But tonight wasn’t a facsimile: Damani Campbell Williams and Sara Garbowski took the roles of Hansel and Gretel’s parents, resulting in a number of beautiful and romantic pas de deux that really lifted the production. In fact, after four years, a lot of Hansel & Gretel felt new, since everyone has been through a lot with COVID-19 and a number of harsh winters in New Zealand. Tonight, the audience felt a lightness, some ordering ice blocks and sweets, with a feeling that we had all made it through the winter—roll on spring and summer.
And roll on the performances. Indeed, we noticed things that we didn’t the last time: how costume and set designer Kate Hawley might have set this in the 1920s with boaters, and top hats and fox furs for formal wear, but branched out with other references such as the Queen of the Dew Fairies’ crown, which reminded us of Esther Williams’ one in This Time for Keeps, albeit modernized. The Dew Fairies themselves were flappers, keeping with the era. POW Studios’ animations included a moon that pays tribute to the 1902 Méliès film Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), with an ice-cream cone replacing the spaceship. A moving spiral image produced by POW had shades of Saul Bass. Claire Cowan’s delectable original, cinematic score with influences of Elmer Bernstein’s jazziness and John Williams’ lush strings seemed that much richer; and the audience broke out into rhythmic applause joining a triumphant Hansel and Gretel in the finalé. Some of her jazz themes would have felt at home at the Cotton Club. Her love theme for Hansel and Gretel’s parents was particularly tender, and showed a couple determined to get through tough times in the knowledge they have one another. Cowan’s banquet themes were probably still resonating with the audience long after we left the theatre.
Since everyone fires on all cylinders—and we must include conductor Hamish McKeich and the brilliant lighting design from Jon Buswell—Loughlan Prior’s choreography came out in full energy, from the playfulness of the title characters, to Ana Gallardo Lobaina dialling the Ice Cream witch’s wicknessness up to 10 and loving every moment. It’s astonishing just how rich every facet of this production is. We loved the seven children playing birds collecting Hansel’s breadcrumbs, though in this case they swept them with their brooms. The King and Queen of the Dew Fairies—Kihiro Kasukami and Mayu Tanigaito respectively (Tanigaito returning to the role that she originated in 2019)—also have their tender moments in the forest, with Prior opting for classical movements.
It’s the banquet where Lobaina has the most fun, along with the Pink-Iced Gingerbread Men, who until then were unsettling, faceless automatons; and the bright pink set hits with a sudden impact after the drab grey of both the city and the shadows in the forest.
This magical ballet is a wonderful family experience, and left the audience on a high. It was the perfect post-winter reward in Wellington, especially after so many tough ones over the past few years. If you want to celebrate the coming of the new season and longer days that come, Hansel & Gretel is guaranteed to help lift you into that mood.
It’s in Wellington till the 29th, followed by Napier on November 3–4, then Palmerston North on November 10, Invercargill November 15, Dunedin November 18, Christchurch from the 23rd to 25th, Auckland November 30 to December 3, and Takapuna on December 8 and 9. Full details can be found at rnzb.org.nz.
Jack Yan is founder and publisher of Lucire.