Into the Forest with Hansel and Gretel

Arthur Rackham 1909 illustration of Hansel and Gretel

We had a magical night out on Friday, thanks to Scottish Ballet’s full-length production of Hansel and Gretel.  My favourite re-telling of this Brothers Grimm tale remains the “Gingerbread” episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (S3 Ep11)—evil children trick townsfolk into going mob and tying good witches to stakes—but I do love a lush, narrative ballet and this one didn’t let me down.

Hansel and Gretel was two years in the making and featured some interesting collaborative elements designed to create a story ballet relevant to audiences today.  In creating it, artistic director Christopher Hampson consulted with members of the community across Scotland and northern England through a series of activities.  He sent a storyteller around a number of primary schools to work with children on re-imagining the fairytale through creative writing and art.  He also established a creative writing contest for adult writers and a series of dance workshops in Scottish forests.  These latter workshops involved bushcraft as well as dance and culminated in forest performances, which I wish I’d seen.  Christopher Hampson and Gary Harris (the production designer) used the creative writing, artwork and dances that emerged from these activities to inform and inspire the story, choreography and aesthetic of the ballet.

I find this whole process fascinating from the perspective of traditional storytelling.  If all goes well, in an oral storytelling session, when it’s just a storyteller facing an audience,  a sort of alchemy happens and the story gets built in that telling-listening space held between them.

Anyone who has attended a live ballet performance knows that chemistry also happens between dancers and audiences.  But the scale and complexity of a big production is so large that many decisions have to be made months, even years in advance.  It seems to me the consulting process enabled Scottish Ballet to be responsive to their audience as storytellers at a speed they could accommodate in a full dance production.  Since some of their inputs came from outdoor workshops—which were in turn shaped by the topography, trees, plants and creatures present at those sites—the Scottish forests themselves were collaborators in this production.  Which is exactly as it should be, for every great fairytale is a journey into the forest.

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