sat 01/11/2014

The Snow Queen, English National Ballet, London Coliseum | Dance reviews, news & interviews

The Snow Queen, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

Prokofiev trumps Michael Corder's too conventional choreography

Daria Klimentova's icy siren, decked out in Swarovski and flanked by her wolves
Daria Klimentova's icy siren, decked out in Swarovski and flanked by her wolvesAnnabel Moeller, English National Ballet

If your heart feels frozen while the ice glitters outside, warm it by reading Hans Christian Andersen's sharp, witty and enchanting fairy-tale The Snow Queen, or listen to the best bits of Prokofiev's erratic but often characteristic late ballet The Stone Flower. You could also drag yourself out into the cold to face Michael Corder's full-length choreography based on the Andersen story, selectively fitted to chunks of the Prokofiev score and interspersing them with other lyric highlights of the composer's Soviet period, but that would have to be a third-best option.

Something ought to have given, music should have been reinstated as well as removed, since the production was launched in 2007. Black marks are bound to come from the Prokofiev camp as the action begins. For all his creative fatigue towards the end of an embattled life, the composer knew how to set up what Verdi would have called the tinta or musical atmosphere of his drama, and he grabs our attention with a steely trumpet summons for his supernatural Mistress of the Copper Mountain, a theme which is to serve the equally cold and inhuman Snow Queen well in Corder's narrative. Not, alas, at the start; instead Julian Philips's score-ordering - I think it's stretching it to call it an "arrangement" - plunges us straight into the glittering Polonaise from War and Peace, a fatuous number for the Snow Queen's denizens before Andersen's conceit of the splintered mirror later to lodge in the young hero's impressionable heart can get under way.

Those icy courtiers, later joined by creatures who look like refugees from a 1980s production of Cats but are in fact supposed to be foxes and wolves, never have a chance to develop a choreographic language of their own. Instead they execute classical steps barely distinguishable from  those Corder gives the jolly peasants of little Kay and Gerda's village. As in 2007, their mistress was imperiously embodied on the first night in the classical hauteur of Daria Klimentova, a dancer with the fluid long arm gestures of a natural Odette and the ice-maiden command of the Siren in Prokofiev's Prodigal Son. But in his seemingly irreplaceable choreography for that masterpiece, George Balanchine gave his dominatrix striking and kinky new vocabulary. Can mainstream ballet really have stepped back so far since 1929 that Corder has nothing new to add? At least Klimentova executed her Act Two waltz with panache; the company dance that followed - another waltz, another borrowing from War and Peace - simply marked time and could easily have been cut in this revival. The Snow Queen's wolf-supported flight over the captivated Kay may have worked for the curtain of the first act; it looked like laziness to repeat it here at the end of the second.

Bring on the gypsies, then, in Act Three, where Prokofiev's Urals narrative tallies with a late stage of Gerda's journey in Andersen's tale. At last vigour invades an evening which has been in danger of falling into frozen torpor. Elena Glurdjidze, Zhanat Atymtayev  and the company flung themselves into the tziganery with disciplined abandon; Crystal Costa's sweet Gerda at last had a tall dancer to support her, and found another in Max Westhall's deftly suggested Reindeer. Her Kay, it's true, is supposed to be a boy; but Yat-Sen Chang seemed ill at ease with the dramatic elements of his riven character, and lacked the energetic definition to suggest the horridness which takes over once the icy splinters lodge.

Chang's second and third act Pas de deux with Costa have no remarkable choreography to challenge the dancers; here a music-lover's attention is riveted on what's happening in the pit. Philips drafts in two of Prokofiev's loveliest sets of themes, from the opera Betrothal in a Monastery and again from War and Peace (where the arrangement, surely, is the late Christopher Palmer's). It's a shrewd move because, once past the (here discarded) orchestral Prologue, Prokofiev's melodic fund was running dry in the late 1940s; imaginative slow movements are not The Stone Flower's stongest suit. Corder's one truly imaginative illustration comes in the middle of the scherzo from the Fifth Symphony used as the Act One finale. This, too, is a clever balletic homage, since we now know from Mark Morris's "original" Romeo and Juliet that part of it was originally composed as bustle music towards the greater ballet's original happy end. As the trumpets snap their way back to the nervy scherzo proper, the Snow Queen's kiss lodges deep in the heart of the soul-captivated Kay.

Here the excellent musicians of the ENB Orchestra, which boasts some respected names among the orchestral personnel, come into their own. First-night conductor Gavin Sutherland seemed happier in tender lyric respite than in springing some of the company dances, though the gypsy revels - partly decked out in Kabalevsky's more garish orchestration - sounded well in a noisy, heavy-handed way. Mark Bailey's designs range from kleenex-box pastels for the village to superkitsch plastic iciness in the Snow Queen's realm. It's a long way from the visual wit and style of Scottish Ballet's Cinderella, which launched around the same time; but then if you're going to let yourself be seduced by the ever-ready Swarovski stones and "crystal motives", what else can you expect? To get full use of those alone, a revival surely had to happen. It's by no means an entirely tepid evening at the ballet, but it was canny of ENB to slip Corder's hard-working fantasy in just before the ubiquitous but unsurpassable MacMillan Romeo and Juliet returns to Covent Garden.

The Snow Queen remains in the ENB repertoire at the Coliseum until 17 January. Check out theartsdesk summary of the ENB season.

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