Alberta Ballet offers new take on fairy tale Hansel & Gretel, offering eye-popping visuals and classical dance

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There is a full-circle feel for Alberta Ballet’s artistic director Francesco Ventriglia when it comes to the company’s latest production, Hansel & Gretel.

The show was programmed by Ventriglia’s predecessor, Christopher Anderson, as part of the 2023-2024 season. But the Italian choreographer, who was announced as the ballet’s artistic director in December, feels a connection to Hansel & Gretel, particularly its creator/choreographer Loughlan Prior. Prior danced for The Royal New Zealand Ballet when Ventriglia was artistic director of that company. He left in 2017, two years before Prior was commissioned by the company to create a new version of the fairy tale. But Prior began his choreography career under Ventriglia’s watch.

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“He was a dancer with the company but he has this passion for choreography,” he says. “So I was always talking to him and he was telling me about his dream to become a choreographer one day. I was the one who started to give Loughlan the opportunities to … create for the company. Years later, here we are full circle: I’m appointed new director of Alberta Ballet and I arrive and the first production I find is from Loughlan. So I find it really beautiful.”

The Royal New Zealand Ballet launched Prior’s Hansel & Gretel, his first full-length ballet, in 2019 and it won acclaim as an accessible family-friendly work that was nevertheless “bursting with unique artistry, surrealism, and dexterous humour,” according to Eyes on Wellington, an arts newspaper in New Zealand.

Shaun James Kelley, Kirby Selchowt and Ana Gallardo Lobaina in a scene from Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Hansel & Gretel. Alberta Ballet is performing the piece from March 7 to 9. Courtesy, Stephen A’Court Photo by Stephen A’Court /Photographer Stephen A’Court

Hansel & Gretel will be making its Canadian debut in Calgary, running at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium from March 7 to 9 before moving to Edmonton from March 22 to 24. Based on the German fairy tale first published by the Brothers Grimm, Hansel & Gretel gets a stylish makeover that mixes classic dance with eye-popping visuals. The story of a brother and sister abandoned in a forest and forced to fight off an evil witch who lures them in with her gingerbread house is given a lively update, plunging the siblings into a surreal world of a mystical sandman, Dew Fairies, an Ice Cream Witch and a “sinister chorus line of pink-iced gingerbread men” and backed by original music by Claire Cowan.

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“There is relevance to bringing a fairy tale to the stage today,” says Ventriglia. “The message is about resilience, about family, about love, about support. Fairy tales, even today, for adults and kids, have this incredible value of bringing a reminder of the good and the bad and the opportunity to find a positive outcome in life. Good people can always be around the corner. So, it is really relevant to do this story.”

“It’s not important how old this story is, the importance is the way we tell the story,” he adds. “The work that Loughlin did is very clever and that makes the story relevant today.”

It is a modern retelling in that it used projections, lighting design and costumes to offer a visual feast, even if the choreography is classically based, Ventriglia says. Some of the company’s principal dancers take on two or three roles during the production.

Initially, the production takes on the look of an old black-and-white film before exploding into a world of bright colours, not unlike the Wizard of Oz.

“You really get the feeling of being in a black-and-white movie, even when we are in the theatre,” he says.

Ventriglia says the show is for everyone: “For families, for adults, for kids, for first dates, for friends looking for a night out,” he says.

“Every time I can, I escape from my office and run into the studio to see the rehearsal,” says Ventriglia. “It’s really, really fun.”

Alberta Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel will be performed March 7 to 9 at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary and March 22 to 24 at the Northern Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton.

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