BWW Interview: Robert North Talks THE SNOWMAN
It's a record-breaking 21st year at the Peacock Theatre for The Snowman, based on Raymond Briggs' beloved creation, with music from Howard Blake (including the iconic "Walking in the Air"), choreography from Robert North and direction from Bill Alexander.
Robert North looks back at the show's creation, ahead of its latest run beginning tonight.
Did you see any dance shows when you were young?
Although I ended up at the Royal Ballet School studying classical dance, I'm still pulled towards popular dance, and it's had a strong influence on my teaching and choreography.
What made you interested in translating The Snowman to stage originally for your Gothenburg company?
[Composer] Howard [Blake] and I talked about doing The Snowman as a musical to put on in London, but it never quite happened. So when I became Director of the Gothenburg Ballet, Howard, my wife Sheri and I worked together to put it on as a ballet. A few years later, we reworked it for the stage show with Bill Alexander.
Was it easy to find a choreographic language that suited the work?
The dance language I used was inspired by the music. Howard and I have worked together on many projects. In the process, we discovered that his ideas about music and mine about dance are very similar. Howard's music tells me what to choreograph - both the steps and the story.
The fact that the book and the animated film (other than the song) are without words, and The Snowman and The Boy communicate with gestures, makes it ideal for dance.
What did you consider the key aspects of the original work that were important to retain in yours?
We kept all the ideas of the original story and film. In fact, we had to keep them in order to get the rights to use the story. I would have kept them anyway, as they are great ideas.
When you're developing something with younger audiences in mind, does that change your approach at all?
Yes, I do change how I approach performances for children. But in this case, the book and animated film had already done a lot of the work. I kept the choreography simple with the idea that the kids could have a pretty good go at dancing some of it themselves. I also tried to make it clear dramatically. It's great when the kids come out of the show jumping around like the dancers on the stage.
How did you go about merging your vision with Bill Alexander's?
We collaborated a lot on the final version of the show. I'm very grateful to Bill Alexander for finding solutions that avoided dance clichés.
Was it challenging to stretch the story out into a full-length production?
It wasn't hard to extend the show. In fact, we had too much material in the beginning.
How did early audiences respond, and did that feed into your development process at all?
I am happy to say the show has always had a good response, but we keep looking for ways to make it better. A good example is the Jack Frost character we added, which gave the story a "bad guy". He gave the second act a better structure.
The show has had the most incredible run - now 21 years at Sadler's Wells. Why do you think it continues to resonate with audiences?
I think the show is successful because it has great music, witty direction, fun choreography (apology for the immodesty), lovely sets, magical flying sequence, and a special story that continues to appeal.
Do you have any personal favourite memories from all those performances?
I like listening to the comments from the children during and after the show. Once I heard a child call out "See you later" as The Snowman waved goodbye to The Boy on stage. Sadly, he wouldn't see him later because it was the moment just before The Snowman melts.
Fortunately, we added the snow falling at the end of the show giving all the children hope that a new Snowman would be built.
How important is storytelling in a dance work?
Storytelling can be very important in dance. I like choreographing pure dance, but I also like storytelling and I don't feel it's a compromise. It also helps reach a wider audience. Selling out the theatre is not the same thing as "selling out" artistically.
Do you think we have enough dance works that are welcoming to younger - or just new - audiences?
I think dance is a great way to introduce children to the theatre. They seem to understand it naturally. It would be great to see more performances for young and new audiences.
Finally, if someone hasn't yet seen the show, why do you think they should make The Snowman their Christmas outing this year?
The Snowman is about friendship, getting to know someone you like and the happiness that it brings - but of course, it is very hard if you lose that friend. It's a story about growing up that you can share with lots of people. And that's what theatre is all about.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton