Walking through Scottish Ballet’s Glasgow headquarters in late November is akin to visiting Santa’s North Pole workshop.
Wherever you wander, whoever you meet, there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind – making Christmas magical.
The first ever full-length ballet of Hansel & Gretel (amazingly, nobody has done it before) will open in less than two weeks, and the building is a hive of activity.
Colourful sweetie-like lights are being prepared in the production department, along with a dark forest and a large table-turned-cage for imprisoning Hansel until he’s plump (the much-anticipated gingerbread house is being created at the larger Scottish Opera studios on the other side of town).
Meanwhile, in the costume department, a beautifully coiffured wig has just arrived from Germany; the stitched joins of a teddy bear are being painstakingly hand painted on to a unitard; and Gretel’s pretty floral dress has just been “dirtied up” to give the impression of poverty.
Over in one corner, a vast pile of shoe boxes and rows of school uniforms sit waiting to be fitted on to the various young “guest artists” joining Scottish Ballet on each leg of their tour. The lead roles of Hansel and Gretel are, of course, being played by dancers from the company – but the rest of the children will be drawn from local dancing schools.
It’s all part of artistic director Christopher Hampson’s wide-reaching plan to engage the people of Scotland in his first new creation for Scottish Ballet. Over the past year, the “Hansel & Gretel and Me” project has seen participants of all ages take part in workshops and competitions (including The Scotsman’s creative writing competition earlier this year) to help shape the new production.
But having reached out to the public (and bought themselves a few new audience members along the way), it would have been easy for Scottish Ballet just to go ahead and make the show it wanted to make – regardless of the workshop outcomes. A glance around Hampson’s office, however, tells you that’s not how he works. Artworks and photographs from the project adorn his large notice board, and serve as constant inspiration for the work inside the studio.
“The thing that really interested me about that whole project,” says Hampson, “is the commonality of the ideas. The Hansel & Gretel and Me project was fairly far-reaching, not just geographically but also in terms of generations. And the things that people felt were important in the story, and some of the imagery they came up with, was quite common.
“I had imagined some dark, sinister birds that would accompany the witch, and that image was reinforced by people time and again. That’s how that project helped shape this production – and moved me creatively – it would make me choose one road rather than another.”
The flock of birds Hampson speaks of start the show as a 1950s, leather jacket-wearing gang of boys who – like everyone else in the show – transform into something else in Act Two. With no existing productions of Hansel & Gretel to emulate or be inspired by, Hampson and designer Gary Harris could let their imaginations run wild.
“The other full-length ballets I’ve done – Giselle, Romeo & Juliet, The Nutcracker, Cinderella – they’ve all got a template and a pathway,” says Hampson. “So this was a new experience for me, and I’ve felt quite liberated by it. More and more these days, I love telling stories and getting into characterisations.”
One of the interesting decisions Hampson made was to rid the story of the wicked stepmother. Instead, Hansel and Gretel’s parents are flawed and selfish, but with their hearts in the right place.
“Somebody asked me, why isn’t the stepmother evil?” says Hampson. “But for me, that just doesn’t sit in this day and age. The idea of a female who isn’t the birth mother, who comes into the family and is somehow evil, is in every fairytale.
“I think it was there as a social and religious comment originally, but we’ve got lots of different ways of making families today, so I didn’t feel that comment was really appropriate for the story.”
So, instead of a nasty step mum leading our young protagonists into the forest, they venture there themselves in search of their school pals – all of whom have mysteriously disappeared from the town.
In the forest itself, we encounter a range of characters who charm and delight Hansel and Gretel – and will no doubt have much the same impact on the audience.
“The scene in the forest is truly magical,” says Hampson. “There’s the Sandman who sprinkles magic sand in their eyes to send them to sleep, the Dew Drop Fairy who wakes them up, rag dolls, sweet treats, dancing chefs and waitresses.
“And the witch is in it right from the start. She morphs into a few characters – at first she’s the school teacher, then a beautiful lady in the street, then she descends from the moon. The last time we see her the wig comes off, the make-up’s smeared and she turns into a tatty old ballerina with things living in her hair.”
The witch isn’t the only one to undergo such a radical change. When we first meet mum and dad, he’s got a pot belly and she, to quote Hampson, “is a mess”. The fridge is devoid of food, but a healthy supply of lager is chilling nicely.
“Everyone transforms into someone else in this production, and all the characters go on a journey,” Hampson explains. “The mum and dad are over-worked, over-stressed, very poor and yet they manage to find just enough money to have their own indulgences. Dad has his can of Tennent’s after work and mum has always got a ciggie on the go, but there’s no food in the house.
“I’m not commenting on anything, but in the story the adults have their luxury items so the kids go out and find what they think is everything they need. But, just like the adults, they find out that’s not all you need.”
Hampson has waited years to stage a ballet production of Hansel & Gretel, and was amazed to find nobody had done it before. For him, the original Brothers Grimm tale – with a few tweaks – still has resonances with audiences today.
“The themes in it are still current,” says Hampson. “Parents wanting to protect their children; children wanting to find their own way; brother and sister team work, something that’s too good to be true – like the gingerbread house and sweets. All of those things are in the story, whatever version you read.
“But the more I delved into the story, the more I picked out Hansel and Gretel’s journey – what happens to them, how it shapes them, and how it reminds them both of values that perhaps they’ve forgotten about.” • Scottish Ballet’s Hansel & Gretel, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, tomorrow until 28 December; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 8-11 January; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 15-18 January; Eden Court, Inverness, 22-25 January. www.scottishballet.co.uk