Scottish Ballet: Hansel & Gretel

Christopher Hampson's much-anticipated new ballet, based upon the Brothers Grimm story, set for Grand Opera House

It is an unusual personal diary whose daily entries read, alternately, Witch, Mum, Witch, Mum and, on some days, Witch and Mum. In between are notes relating to school meetings, family events, music and gymnastics classes. As the pages are turned to check out and indicate a future commitment, one can correctly surmise that Estonian ballerina Eve Mutso does not lead a conventional lifestyle.

Mutso was recently described in The Scotsman newspaper as 'one of the finest character dancers of her generation'. In switching currently between the roles of the Witch and the Mother in Scottish Ballet's sparkling new production of Hansel and Gretel, she is not only having the time of her life professionally but is also providing her five year-old daughter Hele-Riin (meaning 'bright' or light') with hours of fun and amusement.

'Her dad brought her to see me as the Witch,' she laughs, over lunch at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre. 'They had seen the show from the auditorium but this time they were watching from the wings. I was in the middle of a big lift, when I just caught sight of her out of the corner of my eye, waving and mouthing 'hello Mummy!' Chris (Hampson), our artistic director, got us little model gingerbread houses at Christmas, replicas of the house in the ballet. Hele-Riin spent hours making it and insisting on getting it just perfect, exactly like she'd seen it on stage. She is so funny.

'It can all seem a bit confusing when you are moving quickly from one role to another. People sometimes ask if I ever get them mixed up, but when I hear the music and look down at myself and my costume, I know straightaway who I am in that moment. I had a wonderful time shooting the publicity image for this show. An Oscar de la Renta dress was flown over from America. It was so gorgeous, even though I only got to wear it for a few hours.' 

When people ask if she is encouraging her tiny daughter to follow in her own elegant footsteps, Mutso shakes her blonde head vigorously. 'No, no, I am keeping her far away from ballet classes. I would hate for people to make comparisons between us. That would be terrible for a child. But if she wanted to do contemporary dance, I would say Yes, absolutely. At the moment, she plays the recorder and does gymnastics and sport, so I think that's quite enough for now.'

Off stage, Mutso is funny, warm and quirkily charming. On stage and in character, she cuts a dynamic, strong-featured, impressively athletic figure. She started out doing gymnastics and folk dancing, but she says that she was drawn to the world of ballet as a very small child.

'I was taken to see Swan Lake when I was 3 or 4. I remember seeing the evil character Rothbart and the illusion of the live sea, glittering turquoise and orange, and I remember the beautiful white swans. That experience made me want to be a part of the magical world of theatre.' 

Belfast audiences will recall her sultry, damaged Blanche Dubois in the company's memorable premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire in May 2012. Blanche remains one of her two favourite roles, along with the lead in Kenneth MacMillan's emotionally charged Manon, which she danced as a guest artist for the Estonian National Ballet. When Hampson saw her perform it in Tallin, he must have sensed that he had found a dancer on whom he could one day create something very special.

'During November 2012, Chris came to see me dance the role of Manon in Estonia,' says Mutso. 'Before that, he only saw me dance in our studios during the rehearsals for Streetcar, but he wanted to see if I could carry off the main role, if I could command the stage on my own, I guess. He had the Hansel and Gretel Witch in mind. After the show we talked about the role and he explained more about the story and the journey this character would have. It sounded very magical. Now over a year later, after the premiere and twenty-something shows, the character is still growing in my thoughts and through my movements. It's a really juicy role. I like it a lot!'

While the three-sided persona of the Witch was created on Mutso, the role was danced by company principal Sophie Martin in this January matinee performance. The two work closely together; when Mutso dances the Witch, French-born Martin performs the role of Gretel. The production has three casts and each combination of dancers brings a new dynamic to the piece. The two constants are Gary Harris's stunning 1950s-cum-Disney design and principal conductor Richard Honner's seamlessly composed score, which combines substantial segments of Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 opera with other works by the same composer. The creation of the original opera also had a sibling theme. Humperdinck's sister Adelheid asked her brother to compose music to some songs she had written, inspired by the Grimm brothers' edgy story.

'Most of the tunes have a danceable quality,' writes Honner in the printed programme. 'All the scenes with Hansel and Gretel move in a very logical way towards climaxes, which is good for choreography. And a lot of the Witch's music has this danceability and humour, as well a dark side, which we wanted to keep intact.'

But the demands of delivering a classic fairytale through dance meant that additional music was necessary to create a soundtrack suitable for extended dance themes. So Honner investigated later operas by the composer, such as Königskinder and Sleeping Beauty and, with help from company pianist Brian Prentice, built up the score, as though composing it for the first time. And even though the new version has no words, no human voices, Honner makes wonderfully emotive use of the oboe, the flutes, the bass clarinet and the horns as the voices of the story and its engaging folk motifs.

In this, the first full-length, large scale ballet version of the cautionary tale of two lost children, Hampson has rejected clichéd notions of dysfunctional parents, a cruel stepmother and neglected children. He sets the tale in the 1950s, the days of early Disney cartoons and advertisements featuring the Bisto Kids. These are stringent times, replete with echoes for today's cash-strapped families. Hansel and Gretel's mother and father are weak and undisciplined - the father drinks too much, the mother smokes like a chimney; the cupboard and fridge contain only a few basic food items.  

All the children of their town have mysteriously disappeared. As the only young ones remaining, their nervous parents keep them confined to the house for safety. It quickly becomes clear that the local school teacher, a beady, manipulative figure dispensing sweets and dubious excursions, is behind their absence. Before the first act is over, this same character will morph into an ethereal, fey creature, descending into the dark forest cradled in a crescent moon, while, in the children's imaginations, their scruffy parents are touchingly reinvented as a graceful pair of beautiful people. The second act will see an even more dramatic transformation as the glorious vision disintegrates into a hideous, balding crone whose overriding mission is to fatten up innocent children for the scalding oven, glowing menacingly in the corner of her sweetie-laden cottage.

'We try to make sure that we speak in as broad a vocabulary as possible,' explains Hampson, who took over the artistic director's post in August 2012. This is his first piece for the company. He had a distinguished dance career before becoming internationally recognised as a choreographer. What stand out in this accessible new ballet are his clear, uncluttered storytelling style, his meticulous, highly disciplined technical approach and his sure visual sense. He is a great man for collaboration and the way in which he constructed the plot line is one of the most interesting elements of the creative process.

'I wanted to involve our excellent Education team,' he explains.  'We developed a new way of researching for the broad story - we did one project for children, one for adults and one that was multi-generational, Scotland-wide. With the children's research, I wanted them to look at what it felt like to be in a forest. Some said they felt frightened, others said they felt lonely. First of all, they said they felt excited, then fear and a sense of being alone took over. Lots of children talked about the birds in the forest so we brought ravens into the story to accompany the Witch the whole time.

'The final tale is both playful and dark. For instance, when the children are in the Witch's house, they think it's all about sweets and cakes and having fun. They don't notice the bars on the windows. Children love to be frightened and they love magic. While the story starts in the children's house and then in their home town, we get them into the forest as quickly as possible, as that's where magical things happen. I wondered whether the death of the Witch might be a bit too much. It is quite gruesome. But the kids are thrilled with it. I guess the bottom line is that I'm still a kid myself. I'm still making shows up and loving it.'

Scottish Ballet's Hansel and Gretel is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from 5 to 8 February.