Review: ‘The Snow Maiden’

In its very first season, the 2016 tour of the Russian State Ballet & Orchestra of Siberia is bringing the Slavic classic, Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden, to UK audiences. Both soloists and corps de ballet of international repute took to the stage of Oxford’s New Theatre on the 22nd February as part of the company’s 13th UK tour. 

Cut off from the mortal world, the Snow Maiden lives a sheltered existence from human woes among the dancing flurries and glittering crystals of her father, Father Frost’s kingdom. Yet this ice princess yearns for the warmth of human company. Swept up by the whirlwind delights of a village festival, the Snow Maiden also stumbles upon the bleaker side of human existence. She is drawn into a web of human intrigues, as love, betrayal, jealousy, and tragedy play out in the insidious melting away of a heart unused to the fire of human passion.

The ballet is performed here to exude a stereotypically “Slavic” feel. The story itself draws on local legends and folklore, and the tale of Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden) would be familiar to the ears of any Russian child. With themes such as the eternal forces of nature and the tableaux of traditional village life, the perceived folk elements of the ballet emerge prominently in Sergei Bobrov’s interpretation.

This emphasis is reflected in the music. Themes of the heavenly descended to earth are brought to life by contrasts and juxtapositions created by the orchestra. The interaction of mythological figures and human characters from traditional village life is mirrored in the signature musical styles and various visual motifs associated with each group. The rustic Russian feel of the music identifying the townspeople draws on ancient folk melodies and the firm, full-bodied brass tones of these sequences are juxtaposed with the airy, ethereal string sections during the dances in the kingdom of frost. The abrupt musical changes when the two worlds collide enhance the drama of the the heroine’s demise. This development of character through orchestral colour is characteristic of Tchaikovsky’s ballets.

RSBSnowMaiden1-1
The Snow Maiden, Russian State Ballet of Siberia

The story of the Snow Maiden didn’t just provide inspiration for Tchaikovsky — it was also set as an opera by Tchaikovsky’s contemporary Rimsky-Korsakov. He belonged to “The Five”, a group of Russian composers that earned fame in their home nation and beyond by claiming to reject the dominance of traditional classical music of the European conservatoires in favour of a perceived “authentically” Russian alternative. Although Tchaikovsky generally distanced himself from the group with his more self-consciously European and cosmopolitan style, the music of The Snow Maiden can be seen as one of the few instances in which Tchaikovsky and the nationalistic school coincide.

In French Romantic ballet, the ballerina strives to create the idea of weightlessness, a sense of floating on air. Sergei Bobrov’s choreography for The Snow Maiden differs from this convention. Firm footwork and athletic leaps instead emphasise connection to the earth as a point of departure — reflecting the tale’s folk origins. Audiences expecting the detailed precision of French ballet may be disappointed, but the solo sequences still demonstrate exceptional skill, particularly that of the principal ballerinas, Ekaterina Bulgutova and Mana Kuwabara, who share the leading role. Solo sequences are combined with group scenes that sweep audiences into the world of village life with the overwhelming effect of their symmetry and timing. The main sense evoked in these scenes is one of energy and human vitality – fitting for The Snow Maiden’s attempts to bring divine forces, icy hearts, and the conventions of romantic ballet, back down to earth. 

Certainly this Snow Maiden lacks the classic elegance of some better-known ballets. It possesses neither the pathetic poignancy of Swan Lake, nor the theatrical energy of The Nutcracker. The elbow-length, curly white false beard of Father Frost and Tsar Berendey’s towering crown of glitter are farcical, even bordering on the gimmicky. Similarly, the blazing red globe on the backdrop (a not-so-subtle signpost of the approaching melting of the heroine’s heart), and the Snow Maiden’s death in a haze of hissing smoke, are theatrical tricks that seem somewhat at odds with the reputation of this internationally esteemed dance company.    

Nevertheless, in general, the bedazzling costumes and wonderland sets fell on the right side of theatrical and brought visible smiles to spectators’ faces. Spectacular visual impact is created through juxtaposition of the kaleidoscopic colours of village life with the monochrome purity of the kingdom of frost. High-brow ballet connoisseurs may raise their eyebrows, but, undeniably, The Snow Maiden has a certain charm about it. Though the interpretation of the tale is fairly orthodox, the simplicity of the story, making it easy to follow, is in fact a fortunate virtue for British audiences, unlikely to be familiar with these Russian folk legends.

Adapted into a play in 1873, staged by the Tsar’s Imperial Ballet in 1878, and transformed into a Soviet cartoon film in 1952, the captivating charm of the Snow Maiden transcends genre, era, and culture. This timeless classic offers a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in the nineteenth-century heart of a nation.

Marianna Hunt

For future performances at New Theatre, please visit their website.

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