A New Spin on Good & Evil

Eugene Ballet reimagines Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen

Danielle Tolmie plays the Snow Queen in Eugene Opera’s upcoming production

Next spring, Eugene Ballet Company will stage the biggest project the outfit has undertaken in its 38-year history — a brand new, quarter-million-dollar envisioning of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, with all original music, choreography, sets and costumes.

The new production, which will premiere with two performances at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts in April, came about thanks to the generosity of a long-time supporter of Eugene Ballet (EBC), Richard Haugland. 

Through his foundation, Haugland also funded the ballet’s 2013 production of Mowgli: The Jungle Book Story. Right after seeing the opening night of Mowgli, Haugland told EBC artistic director Toni Pimble he wanted to pay for another new ballet. Thus The Snow Queen was born, with a grant of $200,000 from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and another $40,000 — for the original score — from the Hult Endowment.

Pimble, who founded EBC with Riley Grannan in 1978, has created nine previous full-length ballets for the company as well as about 50 shorter pieces. She chose the Hans Christian Andersen tale for a simple reason: It’s a classic Joseph Campbell hero’s quest, with a gender twist: The hero is a heroine, and she rescues a boy.

“And the two main characters are women,” Pimble said. “That’s very different.”

Andersen’s dark original tale bears little resemblance to the 2013 Disney animated movie Frozen, which The Snow Queen also inspired. Andersen’s Snow Queen actually represents a Christian allegory of the battle of good and evil, Pimble says.

In that original, childhood friends Gerda, a girl, and Kay, a boy, are separated when Kay is blinded to the good of the world by shards of a frozen mirror made by Satan. Kay ends up being taken to the Snow Queen’s Ice Palace; with help from various other characters, Gerda rescues him there.

An atheist, Pimble has stripped out the overt Christianity from the story, retaining its robust core about how love and friendship can ultimately conquer evil.

One of the biggest elements of the whole show will be a new score, commissioned from Portland composer Kenji Bunch. 

An Oregon native who moved to New York to make his mark — and then came back two decades later — Bunch was selected, in part, because of his long friendship with Brian McWhorter, a founder and conductor of OrchestraNext, the student-professional orchestra that performs for the ballet’s productions here.

McWhorter, a professor of trumpet at the University of Oregon, is a brilliant crazy man in the music world. (Check out YouTube for the video he made depicting a trumpeter’s stress dream, in which he shows up for a performance at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall sans trumpet and sans trousers.)

As fellow graduate students at the Juilliard School in New York in the 1990s, the two musicians played aggressively experimental music around town. One of those performances got panned by the Village Voice, which complained that their live improvisation together “didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything.”

Bunch’s music isn’t quite as experimental today as it was in his youth. In fact, compositions such as his 2011 “Supermaximum for orchestra,” easily available online, are very accessible — sweet, melodic and lyrical. McWhorter praises Bunch’s “playful sensibility with his music” in explaining his selection to create the new ballet score. 

Bunch was hailed as “a composer to watch” by The New York Times, and Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, included Bunch’s 2006 chamber opera Confessions of the Woman in the Dunes in his list of significant contemporary works in his book The Rest is Noise.

As of early this month, Bunch had worked his way through all 45 minutes of Act I of the two-act ballet and was starting on Act II. In much of his previous work, Bunch has drawn on vernacular American sources like jazz and folk music. Not here. “I wanted to capture an Old World aesthetic that both supported the story and honored the long tradition of evening-length orchestral narrative ballet scores,” he says. “So my influences here are closer to Prokofiev and Stravinsky than American folk or jazz idioms. “

If all goes well, OrchestraNext will record his completed score in late December, giving Pimble and her dancers a soundtrack on which she can begin to work out choreography.

The show won’t be fully cast until January, Pimble said, but EBC principal dancers Yuki Beppu and her husband, Hirofumi Kitazume, will dance the roles of Gerda and Kay, while Danielle Tolmie will dance as the Snow Queen.

The overall look of The Snow Queen will be created by its set and costumes, which are being designed, respectively, by Nadya Geras-Carson and Jonna Hayden, both local designers with experience in ballet and opera. The fairy tale’s battle between good and evil takes place in two distinct worlds — the icy realm of the Snow Queen and the warmer (both visually and in terms of weather) world of the village.

Called into the production after a previous designer quit the show, Geras-Carson began by sitting down with Pimble to imagine possible looks for The Snow Queen. They decided to rely heavily on visual projections, which Geras-Carson will design, and on a color scheme that divides the universe into the cool, icy realm of the Snow Queen and the warm autumn colors of the village where the story begins.

“The set is progressing, albeit more slowly than we would have liked, but there are many factors involved in the building of a set,” Geras-Carson says. “Also, Giselle is the first show this season, so it deservedly takes precedence.”

With the physical sets now under construction, Geras-Carson — a former Disney Imagineer — is starting work on the static and video projections.

The look of Hayden’s Snow Queen costumes takes much of its inspiration from the visual melodrama of the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Sometimes called “the hooligan of English fashion,” McQueen is credited with, among other things, the dark, fantastical, over-the-top romantic look in his clothing lines. Hayden took online images of McQueen’s work to Pimble (“I don’t sketch,” Hayden says) and instantly sold her on the concept of using a similar approach for the Snow Queen.

Getting the concept down was the easy part. By the beginning of this month, Hayden had moved on from ideas and drawings to hands-on production.

“I have various team members working on headdresses, armor, snow people, crow tails and the flower girls,” she said. “We’re tackling the most complex costumes first, along with the principal characters, and we’re dropping by the Midtown Arts Center (where the ballet is based in South Eugene) every few days to do fittings.”

A big challenge is working out the practical details of creating such lavishly ornate costumes for dancers whose bodies — unlike runway models — must move, twist, leap and sweat in every rehearsal and performance. 

“Just the crafts aspect of this show is daunting,” the costumer said. “We’re trying to figure out how to make dancers look partially frozen, but still be able to dance.”

To pull this off, Hayden and her stitchers are using everything from silicone, glitter, paint and fabric to cast crystals and glow-in-the-dark powder. “I also have a person working on antlers that are light enough to wear on a headdress, along with sturdy enough to hold a fabric shroud,” she says. “This show has so many interesting details.”

When the curtain goes up on the ballet’s world premiere in April, though, its prime patron won’t be in the audience. 

Sadly, Richard Haugland, a co-founder along with his wife, Rosaria Haugland, of the hi-tech Eugene firm Molecular Probes, died Oct. 5 in Thailand, where he has lived the past few years to be near the schools his foundation has funded there for needy and orphaned children.

“Richard’s commitment and trust in myself and EBC to create a ballet of this magnitude is very special, a dream come true,” Pimble says. “I so wish he could be here to see it performed.” 

The Snow Queen will have its world premiere 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene; for more info, visit eugeneballet.org.