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The New Jersey Ballet Goes into the Dark and Dangerous Woods to Stage Fairy Tale "Hansel and Gretel"

NEWS | FEATURES | PREVIEWS | EVENTS

By Bruce Chadwick


originally published: 03/22/2022

The New Jersey Ballet Goes into the Dark and Dangerous Woods to Stage Fairy Tale "Hansel and Gretel"

If you want to visit a cute little forest house made of gingerbread, cake and candy, admire the charm of the woods, like kids, despise witches and enjoy dance, the New Jersey Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel, to be staged this Sunday, March 27 at 3 p.m. at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, in Morristown, is the ballet for you.

The Grimm brothers fairy tale, published in 1812, dark as it is with its no-good stepmom, evil witch and big oven, has always been one of the world’s great stories, no matter what country you call home. Kids, parents and grandparents have always loved it.

The original story was a bit gruesome. Young Hansel and his sister Gretel live in a country hit by a famine. Their step mother tells her husband they can’t feed the kids, so they should take them deep into the woods and leave them there. The kids hear of the plot and take white pebbles with them. After being abandoned, they follow the trail of pebbles they dropped back home. 

The parents take them for the walk a second time, but the kids now leave a trail of bread crumbs. Birds eat the crumbs. Walking through the forest, the children come upon the lovely gingerbread, cake and candy home of an old witch, who wants to cook them and eat them for dinner.

All turns out well in the end, and the kids wind up as nobody’s dinner or dessert, either.



 
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Not such a believable story? Well, it was in the 1800s. Many countries in the world were hit with famines then. Witches were big then, too, and everybody wanted to live in a gingerbread house. The story worked then and has worked ever since then.

Why is such a prestigious ballet company staging this popular fairy tale as a ballet? Well, the same reason that the Metropolitan Opera and other opera companies around the world stage Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera of the tale – it is a well known story, has a jolting plot and draws a big audience, the music is wonderful, the story leave plenty of room for dancing and people like it.

“We take away a lot of the seriousness out of the story. As an example, the scenes with the witch are pretty funny and audiences seem to enjoy that light touch,” said David Tamaki, the managing director of the New Jersey Ballet in an interview. “We try to focus on the children, too, not the witch.”

The New Jersey Ballet Goes into the Dark and Dangerous Woods to Stage Fairy Tale "Hansel and Gretel"

The ballet company has always had great success with the production. It is on their “family” series, along with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and it is usually staged every other year (because of the pandemic, the last production was in 2018).

The story has been a  ballet in some form ever since the late eighteenth century, even before the Grimm book. It has been staged as a ballet across the country for years and remains popular.

“Like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, it appeals to all age groups and backgrounds,” said Tamaki.

The fairy tale has an interesting history. The Grimms did not invent the tale; they perfected it. Wilhelm Grimm’s friend told them the already well-known story around 1809 and the brothers enhanced it, turning “mom” into “stepmom” in the fourth edition of their book. At first, readers could not accept the concept of a biological mom leaving her children or an old woman planning to devour children for dinner, so the name switch was made to “stepmom” pretty successfully. The Grimms also added a lot of literary changes and some psychological changes (if a step mom was so evil, why would Dad go along with the story of abandonment? That was softened). More is made of the witch. She is at first a kindly “old woman” who wants to give the kids food and shelter. She turns into a “hungry” witch shortly thereafter. Much more was made of the love between the brother and sister and how they scheme to save each other from the witch’s oven.

Tamaki does not think it’s the story that draws people, though. “Audiences come out to see a good ballet, not just because of the subject,” he said.

The story was turned into a movie in 1982 starring Ricky Schroder, a television special directed by Tim Burton in 1983, a German movie in 2012, the movie Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters in 2013, Gretel and Hansel, a 2020 horror film directed by Oz Perkins and Secret Magic Control Agency, an animated retelling of the  fairy tale. Hansel and Gretel are also portrayed in numerous video games. Some added new characters to the story.

The movies have never done that well at the box office.  “The way we present Hansel and Gretel is as a family friendly ballet with humor. I think movies are aiming for a different market than we are,” said Tamaki of films’ failure with the fairy tale.

One of the major reason the ballet company stages the production, and why it stages Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, is to build its audience for the future. “If you can get young families and kids interested in ballet at an early age, they become arts fans for a lifetime. That helps all arts companies into the future,”: said Tamaki.



 
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The audience at Morristown on Sunday will enjoy the sets for the ballet. There are several backdrop sets, and the ballet has not one, but two full blown houses as part of the set. One is the home where Hansel and Gretel live and the other is the gingerbread house of the witch. No, you can’t slice off a piece of the gingerbread house, put whip cream on it and take it home.



Tickets range from $15-$25 and are available for purchase online. MPAC’s COVID safety protocols are based on local health guidelines and industry standards. With the improving conditions in New Jersey, starting March 21st, proof of vaccination will no longer be required. Masks remain strongly encouraged. Please note: vaccination check protocols may be reinstated for some shows at the request of the artist or touring company, or if conditions in New Jersey warrant.



Bruce Chadwick worked for 23 years as an entertainment writer/critic for the New York Daily News. Later, he served as the arts and entertainment critic for the History News Network, a national online weekly magazine. Chadwick holds a Ph. D in History and Cultural Studies from Rutgers University. He has written 31 books on U.S. history and has lectured on history and culture around the world. He is a history professor at New Jersey City University.





EVENT CALENDAR

ART | COMEDY | DANCE | MUSIC | THEATRE | COMMUNITY

The Wolves

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The Wolves

Thursday, September 29, 2022 @ 7:30pm
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Brooklyn Rider

Thursday, September 29, 2022 @ 7:00pm
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The Caretaker

Thursday, September 29, 2022 @ 8:00pm
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Thursday, September 29, 2022 @ 8:00pm
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The Wolves

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91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540
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OPENING NIGHT: AN EVENING WITH RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 8:00pm
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100 South Street, Morristown, NJ 07960
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Joey Skaggs: Metamorphosis, Cockroach Miracle Cure, Urania Leilus, The House, Panta Rei, The Hauntings of New Hope - Shorts Program - Online for 24 Hours and In Person at 7PM!

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 7:00pm
NJ Film Festival
71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
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Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 7:30pm
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The Caretaker

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 8:00pm
Shakespeare Theatre Of NJ - F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940
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