‘Snow Queen’ part 7: Taking the stage

Eugene Ballet's original production premieres this weekend

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen on his Eugene Art Talk blog. This is the concluding installment.

Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen is just about ready to freeze our hearts. The costumes are sewn. The set has been constructed. Lighting is being devised. And Toni Pimble, the ballet’s long-time artistic director, has completed her original choreography for the show, which makes its world premiere in two performances Saturday and Sunday (April 8 and 9) at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is a big deal arts event for a town like Eugene. Starting perhaps three years ago, the ballet pulled together more than a quarter million dollars in grants to create an all-new version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (which, much simplified, forms the basis of Frozen). In the story, the evil Snow Queen kidnaps the young boy Kay, who is later rescued, after much adventure, by the girl Gerda, his friend.

Company dancer Victoria Harvey at a Snow Queen rehearsal

The grant money assembled by the ballet has gone for everything from the new sets and costumes, being designed and created here by Nadya Geras-Carson and Jonna Hayden, to the luscious score, by which is composed by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and is to be performed by Orchestra Next, the student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter.

At 90 minutes in length, the score, the ballet reports, is the largest piece of orchestral music ever composed in Oregon.

We checked in with Pimble last week as she rehearsed her dancers and finished off the last bits of Snow Queen choreography with them. A co-founder with Riley Grannan of Eugene Ballet 39 years ago, Pimble has been working with her dancers as often as six days a week the last few months. She was determined to get the choreography nailed down, she said, by a full week before opening night.

“The dancers need a chance to grow into their roles,” Pimble explained. “So for the last week we can be refining it.”

Choreographing a new ballet to the original score the ballet commissioned from Bunch has been hard work — and that was on purpose, Pimble said. She didn’t want to create her new ballet to easy music.

Artistic director and choreographer Toni Pimble.

“The music has been pretty challenging, which is what we wanted,” she said. “At the same time it has to be accessible to the audience. The dancers are used to working with difficult music. Rite of Spring (which the ballet performed in 2012) is a great example of difficult music, and they are used to working with that.”

Pimble’s first step with her choreography was working with the dancers to create a crow scene (friendly crows are the allies of Gerda in her search for Kay). Pimble said she picked that one to start with because Bunch’s music for it was so complex.

She played me a bit of the music for that scene from the recording of the score by Orchestra Next. To be honest, I never could figure out where the beat was. Bunch, she said, had done research on crows while writing the music; he discovered they make two different calls at the same time. Bunch’s music is layered in complex ways, she said.

“I started with that scene because I was so worried about that music. I mean, I told him to make it hard. But oh, god.…”

But the dancers quickly got it. “It doesn’t sound random to us anymore,” Pimble said.

Untypically for classical ballet, which tends to open softly and quietly, Pimble’s Snow Queen starts with a bit of a bang — a big production number with lots of dancers filling the stage.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie practices her Snow Queen moves in the studio.

Principal dancer Danielle Tolmie, who has the icy role of the Snow Queen herself, said that first scene involves a great deal of sheer physical work as the dancers race around the stage. “It’s like the chase at the beginning of a James Bond movie,” she said. “That first scene is going to be very tiring. But to get to act evil is a fun experience.”

This is Tolmie’s ninth season dancing with the ballet. She started as an apprentice dancer, then put in four seasons in the corps before becoming a principal last season.

Dark, evil characters, the dancer said, are seldom portrayed in the ballet world by women. So Tolmie’s very happy to dance the Snow Queen, who steals and freezes the little boy Kay in this dark tale of love conquering evil.

“Most of the evil characters always go to men,” she said. “For a woman to get one is fun!”

This is the seventh and final story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch,  Part Four, on costume designer Jonna Hayden, Part Five on dancers Isaac Jones and Sara Stockwell, and Part Six on recording the score, which is now available on CD from the company.

Eugene Ballet premieres The Snow Queen at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

Bob Keefer is an arts writer and exhibiting photographer in Eugene, and arts editor of Eugene Weekly. You can see his work at EugeneArtTalk.com and at BobKeeferPhoto.com.

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