Once in a blue moon an arts organization gets what amounts to a blank check to create good work. Not just good work, but new work, original work, work with no strings attached and no corners cut.
That kind of fairy-tale good fortune has befallen Eugene Ballet Company, which – with the help of a generous patron – is, for the first time, creating a new ballet entirely from scratch. EBC’s new adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen” will make its world premiere at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts in April 2017.
It will have a full-length original orchestral score, by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch; original sets, by local scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; original costumes, by Eugene costume designer Jonna Hayden; and, of course, original choreography by Eugene Ballet co-founder Toni Pimble.
With support from Eugene Ballet, I will be following the creation of this new ballet through a series of articles over the next nine months on Eugene Art Talk. I’ll focus on the key players in this process, including dancers, musicians, designers, and even the business types that it takes to mount a brand-new show like this.
I start today by talking to Toni Pimble, who chose “The Snow Queen” after being invited to create a brand-new ballet by philanthropist and former Eugenean Richard P. Haugland. His foundation is covering $200,000 of the cost of creating this new show, with another $40,000 – for the music commission – coming from the Hult Endowment.
This is actually Haugland’s second time sponsoring a major new production here.
“Richard – a supporter of the ballet – had emailed me in 2011,” Pimble explains. “He said, ‘I would be willing to fund a ballet that you create for children. What would that cost?’
“I was on the bus on tour for ‘Nutcracker.’ And he was in Thailand. I said, ‘It’s really expensive. $150,000.’
“He said, ‘No problem.’
Pimble smiles. “I think I should have asked for more.”
That grant resulted in the ballet’s performance of “Mowgli – The Jungle Book Ballet” in 2013, based on the Rudyard Kipling story. It, too, was a complete new ballet, except that it relied on existing music.
Haugland, who with his wife Rosaria Haugland founded and later sold their company Molecular Probes, was a backer of the Eugene Ballet long before the couple had the money to be major philanthropists. Much of Haugland’s philanthropy has been directed at children; he is the founder of the Starfish Country Home School near Mae Taeng, Thailand, where he lives much of the year. At his school, the young students learn, among other things, ballet.
He’s even told Pimble he would like to see one of the graduates of Starfish dance someday in the Eugene Ballet.
And he liked what he saw in “Mowgli,” Pimble says. “After the show, he said, ‘Let’s do another!’”
Pimble knew exactly what she wanted to do next: “The Snow Queen.” It satisfied one of Haugland’s requirements – that it be a ballet for children – as well as one of hers, that it be a ballet for adults.
“It has to be sophisticated,” she says. “And it is.”
Pimble also wanted enough money to be able to commission an original score. For “Mowgli,” she selected from existing music.
“I really wanted to have a full-length composition written for us,” she says. “We have never done that before.”
The music for “Snow Queen” will be created by up and coming Portland composer and violist Kenji Bunch. Writing in the Oregonian, David Stabler this year called Bunch’s music “a driving blend of popular and classical styles.” A Portland native who spent two decades working in New York City, Bunch has been called “a composer to watch” by The New York Times.
“He does some pretty out-there music,” Pimble says. “But he also does work that’s accessible. He does both. You know, we want real music. We don’t want pandering.”
Bunch hasn’t composed for ballet before, Pimble said. “I liked the idea of his being in Portland. I like that people are excited about his music. I like that his career is taking off.”
So far, she has given Bunch a list of scenes, with their lengths, what will be happening in each scene and where the emotional high points are. His deadline for the commission is this fall. Pimble will have Orchestra Next, the Eugene student/professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter, record the new score in January, so that Pimble and her dancers can begin work on the actual ballet.
At its heart, “The Snow Queen” is the classic tale of a hero’s quest. In this particular telling, though, the hero is actually a heroine – a girl — and she goes off on adventures to rescue a boy from the forces of evil.
In the story, childhood friends Gerda, a girl, and Kay, a boy, are separated when Kay is blinded to the good of the world by shards of a frozen mirror made by Satan. Kay ends up being taken to the Ice Palace of the Snow Queen; with help from various other characters, Gerda rescues him there.
It was this reversal of the classic gender roles that draws Pimble to the story. “It’s the heroine who saves the hero in this story,” she says. “And, the two main characters are women. That’s very different.”
She hasn’t cast the entire show yet, but principal dancers Yuki Beppu and her husband, Hirofumi Kitazume, will dance the roles of Gerda and Kay, while Danielle Tolmie will dance as the Snow Queen.
Pimble’s artistic career has its own fairy tale quality. Born in England, she studied ballet at the Elmhurst Ballet School, which is associated with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The school’s notable alumnae include actress Hayley Mills, best known in the U.S. for her role in the Disney film “The Parent Trap,” and crossover soprano Sarah Brightman, known, among other things, for her performances of “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and in the West End.
“My parents were not wealthy, and their commitment to my dream of becoming a dancer was quite a burden on them financially,” Pimble says. “Then I got a job within a week of graduating from Elmhurst, in Germany. Riley (Grannan, the company’s managing director) and I founded the Eugene Ballet in 1978 and have been very lucky and blessed with the support we have received from the community over the years, especially from Richard and Rosaria.
“And, yes, Richard’s commitment and trust in myself and EBC to create a ballet of this magnitude is very special, a dream come true!”
Pimble has choreographed nine full length ballets for the company and more than 50 shorter works, in addition to guest choreography for other companies around the country. In 1992 Pimble choreographed “Two’s Company,” to music by Antonin Dvorák, for the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project. She’s been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts choreographer fellowship grant and, twice, artist fellowship grants from the Oregon Arts Commission.
Pimble has long been interested in popular culture. Last year, the company did a straight-through ballet version of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.” She’s done ballet to the music of Pink Floyd and Pink Martini. She’s collaborated with the late novelist Ken Kesey and with Oregon blues singer Curtis Salgado. “I grew up listening to the Beatles,” she says.
The Eugene Ballet version of “Snow Queen” might get a boost from an unlikely popular source: A Disney animated comedy.
The original Hans Christian Andersen story of the Snow Queen served as the inspiration for the hit 2013 Disney computer animation “Frozen,” though Andersen’s tale was extensively changed to make it more conventional. “There is snow and there is ice and there is a queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit,” explained the movie’s producer, Peter Del Vecho, when the movie came out.
Despite the differences, Pimble thinks the popularity of the Disney flick will benefit the ballet. “I think ‘Frozen’ will help us with marketing,” she says. “Interestingly, the first time we did ‘Peter Pan,’ the movie came out a few months before our premiere. I was really worried it would impact our performance negatively as regards ticket sales, but I think it had quite the reverse effect.”
Not surprisingly, the original “Snow Queen” fairy tale is darker and more serious than the Disney version, dealing explicitly with issues of sin, death and redemption through a Christian lens. Pimble’s version strips out the Christianity, but leaves the robust core story of how love and friendship can ultimately conquer evil.
“Andersen is a Christian – and I am an atheist,” Pimble says. “That doesn’t matter at all. ‘The Snow Queen’ is all about love: One human’s love for another.”