Claire Cowan, Composer and Loughlan Prior, Choreographer at the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo by Garth Badger.

Q&A: Royal New Zealand Ballet Composer and Choreographer 


We talk with Claire Cowan, Composer and Loughlan Prior, Choreographer about the new season of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Hansel & Gretel

Claire Cowan made history in 2019 when she became New Zealand’s first female composer to write a full-length ballet, working alongside Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Choreographer in Residence Loughlan Prior on Hansel & Gretel.   

This year, the pair has joined forces again to reinterpret the same classic fairy tale, marking the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 70th year of production. We asked them what’s in store for Hansel & Gretel in 2023. (Spoiler alert: real gingerbread, snowing icing sugar and a nod to the world of drag).  

RNZB Principal Katharine Precourt as witch Hansel and Gretel

Katharine Precourt as the witch in Hansel and Gretel, 2019. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

Claire, you previously described the process of working with Loughlan as “some kind of weird telepathy”. How do the two of you begin to build a ballet?  

Claire: We have what we call ‘The Show Bible’. It’s basically a Google document that we can both edit. It’s complete with columns and rows, timings and action points, emotional qualities, types of dancing and other random notes about how we want each moment in the ballet to go, including the story changes that we have implemented, especially if it’s a fairy tale, as we like to mix things up a bit. Once I start writing the music, Loughlan then has something to feed back on. I make orchestral mock-ups on the computer and send them to him. It sounds much like it will with the orchestra, just a bit rough around the edges.  

Loughlan: Whenever I get a file from Claire, it’s like opening a Christmas present. Imagine listening to a piece of music for the first time. It contains all the thematic and emotional hooks that we have talked about in our document. The set and costume designer is usually the third collaborator in our projects; we work with Kate Hawley in Hansel & Gretel.I must admit it’s sometimes hard to articulate how it all comes together, but ‘magical’ is a good way to describe it.   

Royal New Zealand Ballet Composer, Claire Cowan.

Royal New Zealand Ballet Composer, Claire Cowan. Photo by Katherine Brook.

Watching the synergies between dance and music during a live ballet performance really does feel like magic.  

Claire: I try to make what’s happening with the music very clear so that Loughlan can hear all the action points. We talk about the timings in advance, but sometimes I’ll put in random gestures and then he’ll take them to the studio and create little moments of golden comedy and beauty. It’s always exciting to see what he does. 

Loughlan: I'm like, ‘oh that’s a hip flourish there; that’s a kiss on the cheek there’.  

Your work is about reinterpreting the fairy tale and exploring new themes (like in the 2022 production of Cinderella in which put a rainbow twist on the traditional happily ever after). Why is that so important to you? 

Claire: We want to convey stories through a modern lens. We wanted to make Gretel a strong female lead; she's really the heroine of the story. She outsmarts the witch and saves her little brother, who’s a little bit hopeless. We’re using the witch as a double male/female role – an innovation we wanted to do as a nod to the world of drag, well the age-old world of drag really – but one that has had a significant rise in popularity recently. The show is camp and fun, that’s who we are as well. We want to inject a lot of humour into it; it’s not a dry, cautionary tale designed to stop children wandering off into the woods or speaking to strangers. It’s also got themes of poverty. Ballet is not an art form that has any spoken words in it… 

Loughlan: Therein lies the beauty of ballet because it is a wordless art form, we are able to talk about things without actually talking about them. You can do a lot with inference, gesture, the body, and music. We always ask, ‘what is the contemporary relevance of what we’re doing?’ We are really trying to fuse these age-old tales with a modern sensibility so that they are entertaining, but also relevant. Otherwise, I don't see the point. When we’ve been given the gift and the pleasure of being commissioned to create something new, it should have something to say.  

RNZB Principal Katharine Precourt as witch in Hansel and Gretel 2019.

RNZB Principal Katharine Precourt as witch in Hansel and Gretel 2019. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

What we can expect from this rendition of Hansel & Gretel compared to its 2019 performance in which you put a rainbow twist?  

Loughlan: I’m going to put a lot more whimsy and comedy into the choreography. I’m proud of it; it has a lot of art. It connects well with young audiences but also the young at heart as there are a lot of double meanings in there. 

Claire: We’re very audience-focused, especially in this ballet, in terms of having all the senses stimulated. The scent of fresh gingerbread is piped through the theatre when the gingerbread house gets built on stage. And guests will have an opportunity to eat gingerbread during intervals.  

You’re kidding?  

Loughlan: No! And icing sugar comes down from the roof! It's delightful, the whole thing. 

Claire: The music is updated as well. The score is heavily influenced by the period in which we set the show, the 1920s and 30s. There’s a lot of fun jazz influence. The orchestra includes non-standard instruments like saxophone and harpsichord.   

Loughlan: And pots and pans.  

RNZB Dancer Kirby Selchow and Soloist Shaun James Kelly Hansel and Gretel

RNZB Dancer Kirby Selchow and Soloist Shaun James Kelly in Hansel and Gretel 2019. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

Pots and pans? 

Claire: We have lots of percussion instruments that are taken directly from a kitchen like pots, pans and baking trays for the scenes where the witch is in her kitchen. And real animal bones are used for the scene where Hansel puts a bone through the cage. One of the percussionists literally went to the butcher, bought some cow bones and hung them out to dry. He uses xylophone mallets to play them. These bones were sent around New Zealand to be played by all the different orchestras. It’s really fun to have literal elements from the story played in the orchestra pit. There’s also a moment where the witch is snoring on stage and a trombonist has written in the score “make snoring noises.” I’m always surprised at how they interpret different elements. There's a lot of freedom within the score for people to have fun. 

Are the dancers given creative freedom as well? 

Loughlan: We want our creative spirit to reach every aspect of the show and for everyone involved to be part of it, it’s not a dictatorship. Obviously, the choreography and the structure is all there, both musically and emotionally, but the individual dancers – particularly the principal characters – have a lot of agency to add and embellish upon what I’ve created. I’m always excited to see what the new dancers tackling those roles will bring. Someone might add an extra flourish because it feels right for them, and I love seeing that. It keeps the show fresh. It’s a joy to watch because you're able to return again and again. Watching different casts always brings a slightly different experience.   

Loughlan Prior, Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographer.

Loughlan Prior, Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographer. Photo by Katherine Brook.

Loughlan, I hear you’re a Lego enthusiast! How does Lego and ballet work together? 

Loughlan: I construct a little theatre from Lego, like a mock up. Then I build individual set pieces that can move around the stage. It helps my brain to see the floor plan and where the dancers will be in comparison to the moving set pieces. There is a proper model box that the designer makes, but I also like to have my own.   

What’s going through your mind when sitting in the audience on opening night?  

Claire: We’re absolutely terrible to sit next to!  

Loughlan: I remember the opening night of Hansel & Gretel in 2019; we were just squeezing each other’s hands and rocking, terrified of any slightly wrong note or for something to happen on stage. I made the mistake of having my mum sit next to us and I could tell she was thinking, ‘Oh my god, what’s going on?! His career must be over!’ from our tensile responses! At heart we're both perfectionists, and even though our work is very fun and light-hearted, we take what we do very seriously, so we want it to be at its highest quality.  

Claire: We are super-aware and respectful of the fact that we have a 1,000-2,000-strong audience every night, giving us their time. We want to make sure that we’re providing a quality product and that they’re going to be laughing, crying and experiencing all the emotions that can come from ballet. Once it gets to opening night, we’re both so tired. It’s all such a blur and it’s generally not until months later when we’ve had a moment of rest and can think ‘wow, what we did was pretty amazing’.  


Story by Monica Tischler for the Winter 2023 issue of AA Directions magazine. 

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