Ballet, like bread sauce and green chartreuse, is often just a Christmas thing and the UK’s national companies plan their schedules accordingly, surrendering to the cold fact that a Christmas hit can cross-subsidise less bankable sections of the repertoire. The Nutcracker is the safest choice — English National Ballet’s unbroken run began in 1950 when sugar rationing was still in force — but Christopher Hampson, director of Scottish Ballet since 2012, is committed to the ‘Five in Five’ programme that marks the company’s golden jubilee: five new full-length productions in five years.
Hampson’s The Snow Queen will be the second in the series and is touring with 57 performances, half of his company’s annual output. It will be a success: it has to be. ‘These winter productions cannot fail. That’s the business model of any ballet company. It’s so often an entry level not just for children but for adults too. They need to be entertained and it needs to move them.’ Portion size is also a key factor. Hampson is determined to get the curtain down inside two hours: ‘I’ve never had anyone complain that anything’s too short. I can’t sit through Sleeping Beauty any more,’ he admits, shaking his head. ‘I’d rather stick needles in my eyes.’
The Snow Queen’s title is pure catnip for the box office but while Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 story of a small boy kidnapped by an icy enchantress has been staged countless times, the plot is oddly uninvolving and eminently forgettable. ‘One of my favourite research tasks was to sit down with people and ask: “Tell me the story of The Snow Queen,”’ says Hampson. ‘And no one can. They all know she’s vile but they don’t know why.’
Walt Disney first proposed a full-length, part-animated treatment back in 1937 but the project was repeatedly shelved and only saw daylight in 2013 as Frozen, a story of estranged sisters, a dastardly prince and a talking snowman, far removed from Andersen’s morality fable.