Scottish Ballet duo set out to give The Snow Queen a bold new look

Director Christopher Hampson and designer Lez Brotherston talk to Kelly Apter about their creative collaboration for Scottish Ballet’s new Christmas show, The Snow Queen
Lez Brotherston (left) and Christopher Hampson in rehearsals for Scottish Ballet's The Snow Queen PIC: Tony CurrieLez Brotherston (left) and Christopher Hampson in rehearsals for Scottish Ballet's The Snow Queen PIC: Tony Currie
Lez Brotherston (left) and Christopher Hampson in rehearsals for Scottish Ballet's The Snow Queen PIC: Tony Currie

It’s late afternoon at Scottish Ballet’s Glasgow headquarters, and all eyes are on Christopher Hampson. A studio full of dancers is waiting expectantly for the next step, the next instruction, the next insight. As artistic director of Scottish Ballet, and choreographer of the company’s new Christmas show The Snow Queen, the buck stops with him – but he’s not entirely alone.

The company’s new adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th century fairy tale is very much a joint venture with one of the UK’s finest set and costume designers, Lez Brotherston.

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Looking at The Snow Queen’s credits, it would be easy to simplify and say Hampson is the choreographer and Brotherston the designer. According to Hampson, however, “it’s much more nuanced than that.” Andersen’s original story is far from straightforward, and most people who tackle it make substantial changes (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Frozen to name but two).

Scottish Ballet is also taking The Snow Queen in a new direction, after Hampson and Brotherston thrashed out a narrative they felt worked, embracing some of Andersen’s characters and leaving others behind.

“Lez is a great one for asking ‘why?’” says Hampson. “Why that character? Why that part of the story? Where does that take us to? He really has a fantastic way of getting the story told, and that’s something I love as well, so the two of us work very well together.

“And it’s exciting for me personally because it’s the first time I’ve worked on a brand new production with Lez, so this really is a departure for both of us. It’s hugely collaborative and we’ve really been able to challenge each other.”

Brotherston’s work is well known to dance fans, after 10 years creating sets for Northern Ballet and a 20-year creative partnership with Matthew Bourne. From Dracula to Edward Scissorhands, Swan Lake to Highland Fling, Brotherston uses set and costume not just to dress up a story, but to convey it.

“If you work on a play or an opera, there’s only a certain number of ways you can interpret it as the text is already there,” says Brotherston. “But when you work on a ballet or a dance piece, and a new body of work at that, you can decide on the story you’re telling. You may have music and a synopsis, but the job is how to visually tell the story in a narrative piece without words.

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“For me, that’s a rare opportunity in design to have that input as you’re often told what something is going to look like. But working with Christopher Gable at Northern Ballet, Matthew Bourne, and now Christopher at Scottish Ballet, there’s the joy of being involved. You’re not window dressing, you’re working with people to try and tell a story.”

One of the most important aspects for Hampson and Brotherston was giving the Snow Queen herself a back story. As Brotherston says, “evil people are only evil for a reason.” So in this new version, the Snow Queen’s sister sees an image of Kai in a mirror and (unaware he is happily engaged to Gerda) rushes off to pursue him, leaving the Queen alone in the palace. Heartbroken without her beloved sister, the Queen sets out to find her, dragging Kai under her spell in the process.

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Visually, it gives Brotherston the opportunity to build a range of locations, both real and enchanted. “Christopher and I wanted to create a difference between the magical world of the Snow Queen and the real world where Kai and Gerda come from,” he explains. “So instead of turning it into a Victorian fairytale, we decided to move the real world into the early 20th century, sometime between 1910-1940, so it’s potentially an industrial city like Glasgow instead of a folksy village.”

Colour and merriment comes courtesy of Christmas shoppers drinking mulled wine and a circus troupe entertaining the crowds. And as those who have seen Brotherston’s work before know, figuring out who’s who is never an issue. “The audience should know who a character is by what they look like,” he asserts. “If they need to look at the programme to decipher what’s going on, then the designer hasn’t done their job.”

This may be the first time Hampson and Brotherston have worked together on a new production, but Brotherston is no stranger to Scotland’s national ballet company – and is always happy to return.

“I designed some one-act ballets for the company in the 1990s,” he recalls. “Then when Scottish Ballet was granted permission to restage Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling in 2013, I came up and had a ball tweaking it for them. After that, I was asked to help revive Peter Darrell’s charming version of The Nutcracker. Everyone at Scottish Ballet is very committed and cares so much, which is great.”

Like Darrell’s Nutcracker before it, and every other Christmas ballet, The Snow Queen has a serious role to play in Scottish Ballet’s calendar. All ballet companies balance their books on their festive show, and entice in new audience members they may not see the rest of the year, which is one reason why Hampson is glad his isn’t the only head bearing the creative crown.

“Aside from the financial aspect, productions that premiere at Christmas have a lot of things to do,” he says. “It’s got to inspire new generations to keep coming to see us, it needs to help people get into a Christmassy frame of mind, and it absolutely must deliver on excitement and keep young people interested. It’s also got to bring families together and give them something to talk about.

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“So yes, being able to do that with a partner in crime creatively makes it all the more bearable, and especially someone with Lez’s experience. He’s someone who has the ability to add value creatively anywhere in any situation. And he’s really, really good fun to be around – we laugh our heads off, so that’s great too.” 

Scottish Ballet’s The Snow Queen is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 7-29 December; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 3-18 January; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 22-25 January and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 29 January- 1 February,