Review: The classic Grimm Brothers' fairytale is a tale as old as boiled sugar, but the Royal New Zealand Ballet's retelling is still highly palatable thanks to a lively score, clever choreography, inventive set design and costuming, and excellent performances.
In this version, first premiered back in 2019, hapless Hansel and big sister Gretel are doing it tough. Other kids hassle them mercilessly, and they have to watch on with envy when their wealthier peers can buy giant ice creams from a mysterious stranger - a kind of demonic Mr Whippy - and her pink-masked servant.
They don't have a wicked stepmother to contend with, but no one wants to buy the broomsticks their father sells, and their mother is at the end of her tether managing a hungry household with no money. Father (Damani Campbell Williams) and Mother (principal dancer Sara Garbowski) dance a tender pas de deux in Act 1 that expresses their love and sadness at their circumstances. Garbowski, who joined the company in 2017, is retiring at the end of the 2023 season; if you're a super-fan, make sure you don't miss the last chance to see her.
After a dinner time row, the hungry children steal a loaf of bread and run away into a forest (never have forks looked so menacing!), scattering crumbs to help them find their way home. Alas, a flock of birds gobbles up the crumbs (this is brilliantly done - the 'birds' are cleverly costumed children seen through a gauze screen that renders them quite sinister) and the pair are frightened and lost. Help comes in the form of the twinkly Sandman (delightfully danced by Shae Berney) and the Fairies.
Principals Kihiro Kusukami and Mayu Tanigaito are magnificent as the King and Queen of the Dew Fairies respectively. This part of the show delivers all the standards of classical ballet in spades - sparkly white tutus, leaps and pirouettes - which will be welcome balm to anyone spooked by the ghost children and masked boogie men. Comforted, the lost pair fall asleep. When they wake, a gingerbread house has sprung up. Dare they enter? Well, you know they do. But that doesn't prepare you for what comes next.
By Act II, Hansel, Gretel and the whole set have had a massive sugar injection. The grey tones and slightly gothic feel are gone and 'Eat Me' is writ large in lights overhead. Inside the Tardis-like gingerbread house, everything is pink, perky and comes covered in billowing cream and sweets (and, in Hansel's case, chocolate sauce). Here, it's clear everyone is having a great time - especially the Witch.
Soloist Ana Gallardo Lobaina is brilliant as the glamorous, menacing, enticing Witch, charming Hansel and Gretel and encouraging them to eat more, more, more in the manner of an indulgent aunt. When the children fall into an uncomfortable, cake-stuffed slumber, however, she morphs into her true self: a ghoulish green-tinged villain played with aplomb and appetite by fellow soloist Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson.
Soloists Shaun James Kelly and Kirby Selchow created the roles of Hansel and Gretel for the show's premiere in 2019 and they've returned to them here with fondness. Kelly turns guileless, gormless Hansel into a charming, loveable boy, while Selchow plays gutsy, brave Gretel with aplomb. Both have brilliant comic timing and expression (Hansel's genuine surprise at realising that he's rather more cuddly thanks to the Witch's dietary regime is a particular delight).
Finally, the witch gets her just desserts, the no-longer enslaved gingerbread men deliver sacks of cash to Hansel and Gretel, their parents arrive with the twinkly Sandman and the Fairies, and everyone lives happily ever after. It's an unashamedly uplifting and joyous finale; the cherry on the top of a highly entertaining and impeccably executed show. Claire Cowan's score works cleverly with Loughlan Prior's choreography, while Kate Hawley's design and costuming is a triumph ably supported by Jon Buswell's lighting and various visual effects.
In a week when all focus is on the All Blacks' upcoming performance in France, this show feels like an important reminder that one of our other national teams has plenty of athleticism, speed, skill and grace on display too. Catch them while you can.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet production of Hansel & Gretel is touring nationally until 9 December.