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By Donald Hutera
Place yourself, for a moment, in Christopher Wheeldon’s shoes. Working in tandem with the National Ballet of Canada (in part to share the huge costs), The Royal Ballet asks you to create the company’s first full-length production in 16 years. What’s more, the company has commissioned its first full-length score in two decades. The pressures must be enormous.
Imagine, then, the sheer relief and pleasure of witnessing the gala premiere of Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in London on February 28. According to Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, which will host the North American premiere this month, the audience response was rapturous. “The production was enormous fun, fast-paced, and extremely entertaining,” she reports. “Christopher has created a work that respects the traditions of ballet and at the same time uses the technology of today.”
Trained at the Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon is no stranger to narrative ballet—even if his international reputation resides firmly in a more abstract realm. “A story ballet is a different beast,” he admits, quickly adding that “making Alice has been transformative for me. I’ve discovered that I can do it.”
Wheeldon was certainly savvy in his choice of collaborators. Operating from a scenario by the London-based playwright Nicholas Wright, his other collaborators have helped him translate Lewis Carroll’s topsy-turvy logic and otherworldly wordplay into a visually dazzling piece of surreal, family-friendly ballet theater. Crowded with lively incident and vivid, at times grotesque characters, Wheeldon’s production juxtaposes the boldly colorful, witty designs of Bob Crowley against John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s ingenious animated projections. What sets it all truly spinning—and that includes Wheeldon’s alternately comic and lyrical choreography—is the shimmering, urgent, and mischievous music of British composer Joby Talbot.
Wheeldon acknowledges the historic difficulty of so many previous adaptations of Carroll’s original text, regardless of the medium. The iconic source material is episodic and off the wall, with Alice herself a remarkably unfazed, if somewhat detached, observer of all the crazy behavior and circumstances she encounters. One of the principal challenges that Wheeldon says he and his creative team faced was, “Can we stay true to the story but find a way to give Alice more of a journey? Of course it has dark undertones, and parts of it are quite violent, but in the end it’s a wonderful, magical fantasy.”
From a choreographer’s perspective it was vastly beneficial that the production was created at The Royal Ballet. “This is a company of dancing actors,” says Wheeldon, “and one of the best in the world. They just dive into character. The particular generation of dancers that’s here now has never had a full-length story ballet created on them, so they’ve been eating up the experience.” He adds, “If it’s as much fun to watch as it’s been to make, everything will be fine. Hopefully we’ll communicate that joy to the audience.”
According to the terms of co-production, everything save the wigs and footwear used at The Royal Ballet was shipped to the National Ballet of Canada once the Covent Garden dates were over. Will Wheeldon make changes for the Toronto premiere? “Alice is an ongoing process,” he says. “Unlike in theater, there are no preview performances and we have to get everything onto the stage very quickly. There may be some small changes for the Canadian production and likely further changes next year in London, but overall I’m very happy with the shape and pace of the production.”
When asked how he wants the audience to feel when leaving the theater, Wheeldon’s answer is endearingly simple: “I would like their cheeks to hurt from smiling.”
The National Ballet of Canada presents Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland June 4–12; 23–25. —Donald Hutera
The Royal Ballet’s Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH