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Claire Cowan and Loughlan Prior. Photo/Garth Badger/Supplied

Hansel and Gretel: The RNZB puts a new spin on a fairy-tale classic

A family-friendly production of Hansel and Gretel promises to be a sweet and scary treat.

To turn a 19th-century German fairy tale into a 21st-century ballet, choreographer Loughlan Prior turned to early-20th-century German cinema. The creepy films of the 1920s-30s expressionist era, such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s M, have influenced the look of Hansel and Gretel, which is the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s new touring production.

But it will still be a spectacle for the whole family. “We wanted to create a Pixar-type show,” says Prior, a film buff and the RNZB’s choreographer-in-residence, who has created Hansel and Gretel in collaboration with designer Kate Hawley and composer Claire Cowan. “It’s the story that everyone remembers but we’re telling it in a slightly different way.”

And it’s definitely not in black and white. “The story lends itself well to surrealist imagery. It’s all about the witch playing tricks with the children’s minds. Colour is enticement, a beacon of light that pulls the children in. Colour also heightens the senses. We want you to imagine there are amazing aromas coming off the stage, too.”

The RNZB production won’t be a literal translation of the Brothers Grimm tale, which has been adapted before for opera but not for ballet. The witch appears as a fabulous hostess dressed in an orange dress and riding a steampunk bicycle while selling ice creams, which poor, monochromatically costumed Hansel and Gretel can’t afford.

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“The witch is like a showgirl. She creates ice creams that are magical, putting the kids into a trance, so they follow her into the forest of forks.’’

Choreography-wise, Hansel and Gretel is rooted in the classical dance tradition, although the second act opens with a Broadway-inspired extravaganza led by the witch. “I’m trying to present a beautiful, theatrical ballet. It’s definitely classical ballet, but it’s for our time.’’

31-year-old Prior, who joined the RNZB a decade ago after studying classical dance, seems nervously excited about the production. Being on stage was never enough for the ambitious dancer, who has what he calls “a creative compulsion’’. He has won a number of honours – he was the first recipient of the Ballet Foundation’s Harry Haythorne Choreographic Award in 2015 for his ballet Eve – and was appointed choreographer-in-residence last year alongside soloist Shaun James Kelly.

At the RNZB, he has danced as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Last year, he was Alistair Stewart in The Piano: The Ballet. In September, he retired from his role as a company soloist for the RNZB as an international choreography career beckons, although he will still dance character roles.

The day after the world premiere of Hansel and Gretel, he will head to Brisbane for the opening night of his second major commission for 2019 – The Appearance of Colour, an abstract dance work in Queensland Ballet’s contemporary programme, Bespoke. Stylistically the work is more in tune with the edgy dance films he has created as the creative director of Prior Visual, a project-based film collective. His short dance films have been shown at film festivals here and overseas. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I like to push myself and discover new things,’’ he says.

RNZB’s Hansel and Gretel, Wellington’s Opera House, November 6-9; Palmerston North’s Regent on Broadway, Nov 13; Napier’s Municipal Theatre, Nov 16 & 17; Christchurch’s Isaac Theatre Royal, Nov 21-23; Invercargill’s Civic Theatre, Nov 27; Dunedin’s Regent Theatre, Nov 30; and Auckland’s ASB Theatre, December 5-7, and Bruce Mason Theatre, Dec 13-14.

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.