Snow White was not the only innocent to be betrayed by a mirror, mirror on the wall. The looking glass holds so much weight — the truest reflection of the self. And in a 19th century fairy tale, the looking glass trope is imbued with even more meaning: the fate of characters, major and minor, lives within the fragile reflective material. So fragile, in fact, that broken shards are accepted as a sad inevitability. Tiny jagged pieces, lodged forever in a heart, a leg, an eye.
Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen is a story of love lost, glass shattered, and redemption, at last, for the good. "It's a really sweet tale," says Ballet Evolution (BE) artistic director and resident choreographer Jonathan Tabbert. This is BE's second year putting on Tabbert's original production based on Andersen's tale, with musical composition crafted by the company's artistic associate and Chamber Music Charleston's president Sandra Nikolajevs.
Like all Ballet Evolution productions, professional dancers pivot and plié to the live melodies of Chamber Music Charleston. "We use a bunch of different composers from the classical repertoire," says Tabbert. "Sandra does a fantastic job of arranging for the five piece chamber ensemble that we're using." In an hour and 45 minute production (with intermission), there is no time to play full orchestra pieces, and other than the truly devoted, most average art-lovers and their families cannot sit through such a show. "I really loved the full orchestra pieces," admits Tabbert. "Right before I listened to Sandra's version I thought 'I'm just not gonna love it as much.' But in the end I didn't miss the full orchestration. It all happened very seamlessly."
Andersen's tale, like Tabbert's production, follows a traditional story arc. Predictable does not make boring, though. Are you familiar with the nasty nascence of The Snow Queen? One day a jolly little goblin in a merry mood "made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked increased in size and worse than ever." A looking glass that lies, the harshest deceit, one the looker can never decipher on his own. It takes wile and dedication and the help of others to succeed in righting such wrongs. When our story's heroine, young Gerda, realizes that her beloved neighbor Kai has a piece of this evil glass stuck in his eye, she travels across the land to the Snow Queen's palace to save him.
BE's version is, of course, not word for word. As a contemporary ballet studio, they live and breathe well-done creative license. And, the beauty of original productions, even if they become annual standards, is that the artistic director has the luxury of experience and is able to tweak appropriately, year after year. Tabbert and a few of the eight core dancers in Snow Queen are familiar with the choreography, which Tabbert says makes his job a lot easier. "It's nice, it's easier to nitpick and change and it's fun to now come back to it a second time and make it better," says Tabbert.
While Snow Queen is arguably in the canon of classic tales, Nutcracker it is not. "Nutcracker is king," laughs Tabbert. The famed two-act ballet is beloved, and rightfully so, but most adult human beings have watched this production, dragged by their parents or significant others to take in the Sugar Plum Fairy and Clara and Fritz and ethereal whites and blues whisking across the stage en masse. "From the get go we wanted to do something new and original," says Tabbert. And for his dancers returning to Snow Queen for a second year, Tabbert makes sure that the newness doesn't wear off. "I think for people who are repeating a role, if it's not verbatim, even that helps them artistically so they don't have to repeat the same thing. I've been in that rut as a performing artist. If you're a pro you can still give a good product, but it does take some of the passion out of your work and definitely takes passion out of the process."
There will be a few familiar holiday aspects to the show. Fifty children, recruited primarily from the Charleston Dance Institute, will dance onstage, accompanying and complementing the pros. The classical music, the fairy tale foundation, the life lessons imparted — all of these elements make The Snow Queen an appropriately themed holiday classic. A new classic perhaps, with deep roots and thoughtful takeaways. Good versus evil. Perception versus reality. "There's only one other piece in our repertoire that we've done more than once," says Tabbert. "We try to continue to do original work, particularly in the beginning years of a company, you want to expand your repertoire. You don't want to do the same three shows every season." But during the holidays, a familiar tale, even if it's the first time you've seen it played out, still feels right. "With the holidays there is lee way, there's that sense of tradition," says Tabbert. A young girl, traveling far and wide, collecting pieces of broken glass, mending the seemingly unmendable, all to save the heart of her love. You can keep your Nutcracker.