With the soft sound of a violin, Engelbert Humperdinck carries you into the woods with Hänsel und Gretel. The overture begins on tip-toes, then swells into a world that’s dark, magical and dreamy.
For Li Yaming, the music paints the perfect fairy tale.
“Every since I was little in China, we learned a lot about Grimm’s fairy tales,” says Yaming, artistic director of Coastal City Ballet, the first company in Canada to stage a ballet adapted from Humperdinck’s celebrated opera.
Choreographed by Irene Schneider, the former artistic director of Germany’s Magdeburg Ballet, Coastal City Ballet’s full-length version of the cautionary tale features an imaginative set and fantastical costumes that could have sprung straight from the pages of a storybook.
This vision will be brought to life by the Coastal City Ballet company dancers, as well as dance students from throughout the Lower Mainland who auditioned for the opportunity to dance alongside aspiring professionals.
Yaming picked Hansel and Gretel as the company’s first full-length production because no one else had considered staging it.
“Often when audiences think of ballet, they envision the grand, romantic, and tragic works like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake,” says Yaming. “This misses out on an incredible tradition of light-hearted and comic ballets, such as Coppélia and La Fille Mal Gardée. Coastal City Ballet is therefore delighted to contribute to this whimsical balletic legacy by presenting the magic and enchantment of Hansel and Gretel.”
He says Schneider’s choreography is creative, but classically influence and incorporates acting that transforms his dancers into realistic fairytale characters, morphing one into an evil witch and others into nasty ravens to cute cats.
Hansel and Gretel premières in Maple Ridge, then travels to North Vancouver for a second performance. But Yaming would love to tour the production across Canada, if opportunity knocks.
Coastal City Ballet is a pre-professional company, created by Yaming to develop and hone young, ballet talent in preparation for a life and career in dance.
Though only in its first year of operation, the company of 15 dancers has already attracted members from as far as Brazil, China, and Japan.
“If we have enough support one day we will turn into a professional company,” says Yaming.
“The difficulty is financial.”
Maple Ridge ballerina Jennifer Francisty plays as an angel in the production and is one of a core of 10 dancers who guide the brother and sister through the deep, dark woods.
“We dance around them and protect them while they sleep,” says Francisty, who is also understudying the part of a cat, a minion for the evil witch.
The movements of the angels are soft and float and feature long jetés across the stage.
Francisty, 20, has been with Coastal City Ballet since the Vancouver-based company formed last September and has finally grown comfortable with the gruelling schedule of a professional dancer.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Francisty.
“I can’t even believe we open this weekend because we’ve been rehearsing since the last week of February. It’s really exciting.”
• Hansel & Gretel plays May 5 at 7:30pm at The ACT in Maple Ridge and May 6 at 2pm at The Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver.