Writing a new ballet based on a traditional fairy tale has been a sweet treat for two of the country's most exciting artists

Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Claire Cowan - one of these names is not like the other.

The first two composed some of the world's most famous ballets – Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet among them - while Cowan, one of New Zealand's most adventurous composers and multi-instrumentalists, is about to try to beat them at their own game.

She's written the music for a new version of Hansel & Gretel, having worked for a year alongside choreographer Loughlan Prior on the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Christmas production. It's in a world inspired by silent films, with sets and costumes by Wellington-based but Hollywood-sought designer Kate Hawley. Old-fashioned theatrical magic meets high-tech.

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Remarkably, in a world hungry for new story ballets, Hansel & Gretel has only been developed as a full-length work by a professional company once before when, in 2013, the Scottish Ballet staged it using music from the more famous 1893 opera.

And astonishingly, Cowan is the first female composer commissioned by the RNZB to write it a full-length ballet score. While it regularly commissions new ballets, it rarely asks for new music for the full-length ones; the last time was 2006 when Mark Baldwin and Gareth Farr created The Wedding. It's even rarer to stage a new ballet at Christmas – traditionally the time when The Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty reign supreme and audiences can be guaranteed.

Composer Claire Cowan.
Composer Claire Cowan.

If Cowan is feeling the pressure, she hides it well. Sitting in her intimate Kingsland studio, surrounded by an eclectic range of instruments – there's even a harpsichord – and an equally impressive array of electronic equipment, she's calm, composed and sympathetic to concerns about the risks of new ballets and music.

"Of course, there's the fear of new music being inaccessible or not as instantly lovable as older classic music," she says. "The Christmas ballet is usually something like The Nutcracker and everyone knows the tune, even if they don't know where it's from and they know about the Sugar Plum Fairy and the story.

"I am competing with that sort of loyalty to a score and story, so I can understand the hesitation, from a commercial standpoint, of giving audiences something new you hope can be loved as much as the classics. It'ss a challenge to create a new classic."

She's given it her best shot by creating strong and soaring melodies, using repetition and bringing to the score some of the rigour and imaginative thinking she employs when writing music for films – her more regular job. Cowan says she needed all the skills built up scoring films, orchestral works and music for her own group, Blackbird Ensemble.

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For a new ballet, the music must come first, with the choreographer putting the movements to it and then communicating them to the dancers.

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"Sound tracks – that's mainly what I do - so that's what I had to compare this to. The ballet is quite filmic, we use early cinema as a reference point, so that suited me to a T but usually I have an actual script, with dialogue.

"This script ... was more a description of the action and read like a boring book, 'They do this, they do that, they feel this…' so Loughlan and I worked together to break it down into 10-second increments so I could write the scenes and work them into a timeline."

It meant musing over questions like, "How long would it take to push a witch into an oven?" Prior, who retired from full-time dancing in September to concentrate on choreography, thought 30 seconds but Cowan warned him this was too long.

Loughlan Prior has retired from full-time dance to concentrate on choreography.
Loughlan Prior has retired from full-time dance to concentrate on choreography.

"So he [started] waving his arms around and turning" - something that's hard to picture in her cosy studio – "and I said, 'Well, that was 10 seconds.'"

Prior and Cowan's version of Hansel & Gretel is set in a world inspired by silent movies, coloured in black and white with vibrant bursts of technicolour and featuring an "awesome amalgamation" of styles. Given that food features prominently, Prior has added some extra sensory ingredients but he's reluctant to elaborate.

"I want audiences to be truly surprised."

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However, he acknowledges many cakes were in eaten, in the name of research, as he and Cowan crafted their story.

"I've got a very sweet tooth so maybe subliminally I was drawn to the story because sickly sweet desserts and a whole gingerbread house feature so prominently. We were playing with a lot of food-related concepts, so it seemed only right to eat cake."

* Hansel & Gretel opens in Wellington on Wednesday, November 6 before touring the country. It opens in Auckland at the Aotea Centre on Thursday, December 5.