Hänsel and Gretel, a Pantomime Ballet
The folktale Hänsel und Gretel was first published in 1812 by the Grimm Brothers but must have been in circulation for some time before then. And so, it would not be unreasonable to assume that a choreographer in the last decades of the eighteenth century might have encountered the story and even adapted it as a pantomime ballet. Certainly, it was not unheard of for eighteenth-century stage-works to take their plots from fairy tales or folktales. Cf.: Thomas Arne’s The Opera of Operas, or Tom Thumb the Great (1733) based on the English folktale; Grétry’s Zémire et Azor (1771) based on the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast; and Grétry’s Raoul Barbe-bleue (‘Raoul Bluebeard’) of 1789 based on Perrault’s tale.
Hänsel (half-serious dancer), Gretel (half-serious dancer), mother / witch (actor), and corps of indeterminate size.
A patchwork score consisting of pieces by Mozart, for 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings. (To hear the MIDI samples, click the white arrowhead to the left on the black bars below.)
The following scene summaries are meant to be only sketches. More detail will be added once the musical selections are approved.
Near the end of the overture, the curtain rises, revealing a country landscape, with the facade of a peasant’s hut.
Hänsel and Gretel are sitting at work, in front of the hut, Gretel spinning and Hänsel weaving baskets. They show their fatigue and boredom. But Hänsel soon has had enough: He throws down the basket, gets up, and kicks it. Gretel urges him to get back to work, for if their mother comes back and not enough work is done, they will get a thrashing. Hänsel shows that he does not care, but Gretel comes up behind him and pulls him by the ear back to the bench, where they sit down again and return to their work. But he cannot bring himself to continue. He shifts towards Gretel and begins to tickle her with a straw. She tries to get him back to work, but he ends up pulling off a ribbon from her sleeve, gets up and starts to flit about waving the ribbon, while Gretel tries to get it back, but in vain. She gets angry. He then promises to give it back if she will first dance with him for a while. They dance an allemande-like piece, but Gretel’s worry gets the better of her, and she stops and returns to work. When Hänsel begins to wave the forgotten ribbon again, she gets back up, and he coaxes her to continue dancing.
Just before they end, their mother appears and sees them dancing. She comes up unseen behind them and takes them by the ear and pulls them back to the bench and shows her anger over how little has been done in her absence. Hänsel becomes surly, which angers her even more, and she tries to hit him as he dodges about, while Gretel tries to shield him. The mother gives up on this, draws aside and beats her breast, bewailing how hard-done-by she is. While she is thus preoccupied, Gretel has Hänsel remove the tools and bench, in the hope that out of sight will be out of mind. She tries to comfort her mother, but the latter turns against her in anger as well. She then orders them to go out into the woods, as much to gather something to eat as to be out of her hair.
The set changes, showing a thick wood, and darkness little by little falls. At length, Hänsel and Gretel appear. They go this way, and then that way, until they realize that they are hopelessly lost. Hänsel asks what they have to eat. Gretel shows that she has found nothing. Their spirits fall, and she sits down on the ground and begins to cry, while he tries to comfort her. But this stops at once when they hear frightening noises in their nearness.
Hostile forest sprites appear and, in a mix of pantomime and dance, torment Hänsel and Gretel, now attacking, now retreating, now circling, now seizing them, now letting them go. Gretel is overwhelmed and swoons, falling into Hänsel’s arms, but Hänsel in the end wards them off.
He lays her down on the floor, worried, and sits by her until he is overcome by heavy sleep. As they slumber, the set changes: An oven appears, a tiny outbuilding, and planters sprouting flowers. Day little by little dawns.
Gretel wakes. She stretches a little and yawns and then suddenly remembers what befell them in the night and looks about worried. She gets up and begins to explore a little. She is taken with the flowers and smells them, amazed at how sweetsmelling they are. She touches one and then holds her finger to her lips and is overwhelmed by the sweet taste. She repeats this tasting, moving with delight from one planter to the other. Hänsel now wakes up as well and then, before he knows it, finds himself being pulled back to the planters by an excited Gretel. She has him close his eyes and then, touching one of the flowers, holds her fingers to his nose and then lips. He too is overcome with delight, and they busy themselves about the flowers as if this will somehow still their gnawing hunger.
The witch appears from the opposite side and sees the two. She is delighted. As she approaches them, they become aware of her and are a little afraid, such that Gretel stands closely behind her brother, clinging to him. The witch tells them that all this belongs to her. She draws near Hänsel and, seizing him by the wrist, feels his arm to see how much flesh there is and then pinches his cheek. She turns away to smell and lick her fingers, overcome with the desire to eat him. Dissembling, she turns back towards them and sweetly tells them that she is an outstanding baker and then suddenly rushes off in order to return in no time with a big jar of sweets. She asks them to help themselves. They greedily begin to eat from the jar. Gretel even seizes the jar, and the two youths almost begin to fight over it. The witch then comes up and takes the jar back and demands payment. They are shocked, and both feebly search themselves for money, even though they know they have none. The witches laughs, as if it were but a joke, and then asks them to dance for her instead, as a kind of payment. Hänsel and Gretel are relieved and even pleased by the idea.
Gretel begins, dancing solo.
Hänsel now dances solo, with Gretel alternating with him, and they end by dancing together.
The witch is greatly amused, and the two youths are now quite at ease with her. She wishes to dance with Hänsel as well, and Hänsel most willingly obliges her. No sooner do they start but she seems to injure her back terribly in the first jump and cannot straighten up. The two try to help or at least comfort her. She tells Hänsel that there is a salve in the little outbuilding. They lead her upstage, she all the while having fitful pain while moving. At the doorway, she points to an upper shelf inside. Once he is well within, she quickly straightens up, pulls out a key and locks him in. Her injury was only feigned in order to trick Hänsel into going into the building.
The witch is overcome with malicious glee and seems to be beset with a hundred thoughts about how she should get ready to bake him. Gretel begs to have Hänsel released, but the witch strikes at her and goes off too preoccupied to care much about Gretel.
Gretel rushes to grill, and they try to open it again. Hänsel tells her to look for an axe, and so she flits about desperately searching but cannot find anything. She returns to the grill, but Hänsel now seems to have given up and sits in a slump.
The witch returns intending to bake. She carries in her hands a large baking sheet. She orders Gretel to fetch some wood in order to feed the fire under the oven. She then has Gretel hold the sheet so that she can open the heavy door to the oven. The witch holds up one of the gingerbread men lying on it and says that this is also to be Hänsel’s fate. Gretel is horrified and then angered. The witch takes the sheet from Gretel and is about to put it in the oven. Gretel snatches the key hanging from witch’s waist and then pushes her into the oven and shuts the door. She backs away in fear. The oven then turns blood red (by means of a spotlight, of course) and then to pure white light, marking the death of the witch and the end of her enchantments.
Amazed, Gretel rushes half-way towards the oven, as if to make sure that the witch has not somehow escaped, but then she remembers that Hänsel is still locked up. She rushes over to the outbuilding and unlocks the grill. Hänsel rushes out, as far as he can from his prison. He falls to one knee, and with his arms crossed over his chest and his gaze lifted up, he seems to thank the heavens for his freedom. Gretel comes up to him, and they joyfully hug each other. And then holding each other by the hands, they whirl about and dance to celebrate their victory. But then they hear a knocking sound from inside the oven and are frightened again. The door to the oven suddenly swings open, and children rush out. They tell the amazed Hänsel and Gretel that they had been bewitched by the witch and reduced to gingerbread men, which she was about to bake. But the death of the witch broke the enchantment. They express their thanks to the Hänsel and Gretel and ask them to dance with them to celebrate their freedom.
They perform an extended three-part dance: in the first part (a version of a German folksong, also used by Humperdinck in his opera Hänsel und Gretel, namely, “Brüderchen, komm tanz mit mir”), a folk-inspired group dance; in the second part (a German dance in three), mainly a pas d’attitudes; and in the third (a bona fide contredanse), a contredanse générale.
Noises are heard from offstage, and all become worried. Suddenly the forest sprites that afflicted Hänsel and Gretel in the second act reappear and dance around them, seemingly returned to harry them once again. But unexpectedly they stop and tell them that with her death, the witch’s power over them has diminished and that the only thing needed for them is for the collars put on them to be removed. Hänsel and Gretel do this. The sprites are now completely free and joyfully thank Hänsel and Gretel. (I am still missing a short piece of music for the final bit here, and so the music in the MIDI sample just stops rather than ends.)
The entire cast dance together now to celebrate their happiness and end with a grand tableau:
Remarks on the Ending
By the 1770s (the imagined time frame for this Hänsel and Gretel), it was a cliché to end a pantomime ballet with a contredanse générale. By “general” is meant that the whole cast dances. This might even involve bringing back a performer who supposedly died in the ballet. In G. Vestris’s version of Noverre’s Médée et Jason (1770), for example, “after having been poisoned by her rival in this ballet, Guimard, who played Creusa, dances in the third act as a simple shepherdess” (Grimm 1879: 9/237-38 = 15 Jan. 1771).
The contredanse was usually a two-time piece in rondeau form, with many repeats. The final contredanse from Le peintre amoureux de son modèle, for example, requires a repeat pattern of AA [BBACCA] x 4 (that is, after the whole string is played through once, the sequence in square brackets is repeated four times), although this is not reflected in the actual musical notation:
And here is a MIDI mockup of the final contredanse from Ninette à la cour (1777), which likewise contains a lot of repetition:
To end then with a contredanse that contains no little amount of repetition is historically correct but, I think, artistically ill-advised. In order to avoid the tedium that results from such repetition, the repeated sections would need to be reworked or at least embellished. I think it is simpler and more interesting just to use new music instead, producing essentially a medley. Certainly, a more “through-composed” approach was not foreign to sections of ballets wherein pantomime was uppermost. Consider this example from the second act of Ninette:
And Pierre Gardel’s 1802 version of Ninette had a pas de deux to different music inserted within the final contredanse (thus, contredanse – pas de deux – contredanse).
The final fête of a pantomime ballet normally appears after the dénouement; the story is over by that point and the dancing is largely for the sake of dancing. Again, I have departed from convention and introduced a kind of “coda,” wherein a loose thread is tied up (the forest sprites), and the introduction of these dancers then augments the dancing forces in order to end with a bigger bang. The final piece (presto in 3/8) is to be treated, from the point of dance, as if in 6/8 (thus, two musical measures to one measure of dance). This too was not the norm, but there is a little evidence that this could in fact be done.
I think these departures would have constituted a pleasant surprise for an 18C audience. And I think it is a mistake to imagine that there was no room for a little innovation in the period. In any case, the ballet ends with a grand tableau, as was usual:
All of the operas, tragedies, pastorals, comédies-ballets, ballets héroïques, in a word, all of our operas end with a general ballet, at the end of which all the dancers remain en attitude until the curtain has fallen. (Journal des théâtres 15 Jan. 1778)
Ending with a tableau was also the norm in the playhouse. Consider “Jugez de mes regrets!” from the last scene of Les adieux mounted at L’Ambigu-comique on 31 Dec. 1784: