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Hunger and Gaiety


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Ballet Chicago

at Steppenwolf Theatre, through April 24

Ballet is notoriously airy. Dancers work as hard as they can to give the impression they're not earthbound, and many story ballets involve otherworldly creatures, Wilis and enchanted swans and nutcracker princes. So it's strange to choose as the basis for a story ballet a fairy tale whose moral might be summarized as "Eat or be eaten." Yet that's what Ballet Chicago artistic director Daniel Duell has done in the full-length Hansel and Gretel, with curious results.

This Brothers Grimm tale is grim indeed, full of images of starvation and gluttony. Hansel and Gretel live in a period of famine, and when they spill a pail of precious milk their stepmother plots to "lose" them in the forest so she'll have two fewer mouths to feed. The bread crumbs they scatter to find their way home are gobbled up by a bird. But most striking are the witch and her gingerbread house, a vision of delight for the gluttonous and the starving--and children, who are often both. The hungry witch wants to eat the kids, but being something of a gourmand, she stuffs them with food first to make them more delectable. Finally they turn the tables on her and feed her to her own oven.

Duell doesn't ignore or gloss over any of this, and sometimes he even enhances the food-chain side of the plot. His second act, which takes place in the forest, opens with two deer and a stag being stalked by a wolf. The witch's oven is like a giant personification of the face of hunger--it not only has eyes, a nose, and a roaring furnace of a mouth, but a human face peers from each eye and a human body forms the knobby landscape of the nose.

But this is ballet, and though Duell depicts hunger and even purports to explore it, he comes down firmly on behalf of the immaterial world. The second act contains a long section in which, having eaten "magic berries," the children are transported to a realm of spirits, angels, and cherubs. The prologue (by resident choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt, who also did the epilogue--Duell did all the rest) firmly establishes that though the villagers may be starving they're happy, delighting in the antics of some acrobats. The children's father doesn't seem oppressed by his poverty: he splurges on a toy for the kids. And when we first see Hansel and Gretel they're much more involved in their play than in making brooms and keeping the wolf from the door. Only the stepmother is concerned by the prospect of starvation. So in this corner we have toys, gaiety, dancing, and laughter, and in the other corner anger, a gnawing belly, and murderous impulses.

That kind of theatrical tension is fine, but Duell has also chosen to explore, or so he has said in various interviews, the "contemporary" aspects of the starving family's situation. As a press release puts it, "Touching on the themes of poverty, familial conflict, homelessness and the responsibility of the community to the individual, this graceful retelling of this childhood favorite has surprising relevance to our world."

Uh, sorry, but you can't do a Brechtian piece of theater and dismiss the material world almost every step of the way. Only one scene makes the family's plight real, and that's the one in which the stepmother decides to get rid of the kids. Maybe that kind of stuff sounds too strong for children, part of the target audience for this show. But I took along a test child, my seven-year-old daughter Jocelyn, and she was riveted by this scene, whispering ferociously at me, defending the father against his wife. And she made a point of saying she was bored by the guardian angels' duet.

Duell has choreographed the stepmother's pivotal scene remarkably well (and Lisa Cueto danced it very well on opening night). It isn't easy to convey a decision of that magnitude in dance, but Duell makes us see her anger in her clenched fists and flung arms, her worry in her curled fingers and tiny, rapid steps, the arcing line of her thoughts in her circles around the stage. There are loads of spins and turns and circle dances in Hansel and Gretel, and Duell is clever about making them mean different things. The villagers' and the father's turning seems pure physical gaiety, the stepmother's the motion of her intellect. The bond between the two children is revealed in the little circle they so often form. And encircling ring dances can mean a blessing by benevolent spirits, enchantment by wicked ones, or an everyday sense of community.

Duell is a fine storyteller, especially when he concentrates on his story, dramatizing the stepmother's cruel decision or the witch's power. (The witch's zombie-ish slaves are also pointedly slaves to gravity--flat-footed and often flopped over at the waist.) Duell's deer look charmingly like real deer, and the children who appear in the second act as elderberry bushes, forest spirits, and cherubs are thoroughly convincing. Meridith Benson as Gretel sometimes overdoes the cute, but she's a gorgeous dancer and persuasively blissful when she dons the Dew Fairy's gossamer wrap. Gouping Wang, who plays Hansel, is a real find--forceful but gentle, with a strong technique and a considerate manner. Kimberly Schmidt's adaptation of Humperdinck's music works well, and Jeff Bauer's impressive sets and costumes place the action firmly in never-never land, where it should be.

My daughter liked Hansel and Gretel, and so did I. For the most part it tells its story powerfully and economically. But why pretend to explore social ills in a work like this? Especially when the impact of the stepmother's decision-making scene is destroyed by the epilogue--a quick hug supposedly makes everything OK again between her and the children. We expect a certain amount of make-believe in fairy tales and story ballets, but providing a metaphorical Band-Aid for poverty, hunger, and the neglect and abuse of children is going too far.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Dan Rest.

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