You are here

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: dancing down the rabbit hole

Features - Classical Music | Dance

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: dancing down the rabbit hole

by Jo Litson on September 4, 2017 (September 4, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Dance | Comment Now
Some thought Christopher Wheeldon “completely insane” when he decided to make a ballet based on Lewis Carroll's novel.

Last year, when The Australian Ballet was organising promotional photography for the launch of its 2017 season, The Royal Ballet in London sent over one of the costumes from Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Amber Scott to wear. “I put the dress on and it was making a funny noise and I was asking why that was so, and, apparently, they lined the bodices with plastic because the girls were that drenched in sweat that it was coming through the satin,” recalls Scott, one of the dancers who will play Alice in Australia.

Alice is a big role in a very big ballet. In fact, she appears in virtually every scene – hence the need for perspiration protection. “I think there’s only two minutes when she’s off-stage,” says AB Artistic Director David McAllister. “That’s why we will have so many casts. We are doing a lot of performances – eight shows a week for three weeks in both Melbourne and Sydney. The Alices can only do two performances a week so we need to have at least four casts.”

Australian Ballet, Alice's Adventures in WonderlandSarah Lamb as Alice in the Royal Opera House's 2011 production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo © Johan Persson

The conversation between Scott and McAllister about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is taking place at a champagne high tea in Sydney organised by the Friends of the Australian Ballet. There is a buzz of excitement in the air, with quite a few attendees entering into the spirit of the occasion by wearing Wonderland-themed hats, which they have created for a hat competition.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland premiered at The Royal Ballet in 2011. It was the first full-length work the Company had created since 1995 so a lot was riding on it. Fortunately it proved hugely successful, enchanting audiences with its dazzling design, glorious music and fun choreography, which ranges from romantic classical pas de deux to tap dancing. “[Wheeldon] and his team have created an Alice whose wit, speed and invention have lifted the whole story ballet genre into the 21st century,” said The Guardian.

McAllister has had his eye on the ballet ever since it premiered. A long-time fan of Wheeldon’s work, he included the British choreographer’s Mercurial Manoeuvres as part of his first season as Artistic Director in 2002 and has since programmed Wheeldon’s After the Rain and DGV: Dance à Grande Vitesse.

Australian Ballet, Alice's Adventures in WonderlandNehemiah Kish as the Knave of Hearts, Yuhui Choe as Alice in the Royal Opera House's 2014 production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo © Bill Cooper

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is too big for the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, so after its Melbourne season this month, it will come to Sydney’s Capitol Theatre in December.

“We always knew coming out of the Sydney Opera House for this closure period [while renovations take place] was going to be an exciting but difficult time for the Company. To take everyone with us down the road to the Capitol we needed something that was going to be spectacular… so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it,” says McAllister.

Wheeldon is one of the big names in modern ballet. He trained at The Royal Ballet School and danced with the company for two years before moving to New York City Ballet in 1993. He became the first resident choreographer there in 2001 and returned to The Royal Ballet as Artistic Associate in 2013. Recently, he made his mark in musicals too, directing and choreographing a production of An American in Paris, which premiered in Paris in 2014 then went to Broadway in 2015, where he won a Tony Award for Best Choreography, and onto the West End where the show opened in March this year.

Wheeldon has loved Alice in Wonderland since childhood. “In fact, we had a very early limited edition on our bookshelf. It was a family treasure,” he tells Limelight. In the past, he has talked about how he used to listen to an audio version to help him get to sleep as a little boy. The idea of turning it into a ballet had been in his mind for some time. “I had actually made plans many years ago to do a version for Colorado Ballet that never came to light [using] a cobbled together score of Berners and Stravinsky – rather odd!” he says.

Lewis Carroll’s novel is episodic, full of wordplay and pretty surreal – so perhaps not the most obvious story to turn into a ballet. The show’s designer Bob Crowley is on the record as saying he thought Wheeldon was “completely insane” when he first heard about it. 

Wheeldon says that he and British playwright Nicholas Wright, who worked with him as a dramaturg on the project, weren’t fazed by the structure of the Carroll’s novel. “We liked the freedom and variation that [it] offered us, although we also saw it as a challenge – so we gave our version a narrative through-line that does not exist in the book,” he says.

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandArtists of The Royal Ballet in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 2013. Photo © Johan Persson

They added a prologue in which Lewis Carroll reads a story to Alice and her sisters in the garden of their father’s Oxford deanery. Guests who arrive for a tea party then become the exotic characters in Wonderland – Carroll turns into the White Rabbit, Alice’s parents become the King and Queen of Hearts, a magician at the tea party becomes the Mad Hatter and so on. Wheeldon says that they did that “mainly to highlight the fact that many of the zany and colourful characters in the book were based on real people in little Alice Liddell’s life in Oxford. A lot of these people would have passed through the deanery during Alice’s childhood.”

Alice Liddell was the seven-year old who inspired Carroll to write Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass when she asked him to tell her a story during a boating trip in Oxford. Her father was the Dean of Christ Church Oxford. Wheeldon and Wright also made Alice a little older – around 15 or 16 – and added the character of Jack, the gardener’s son, on whom Alice has a crush. When he gives her a rose at the tea party, she gives him a jam tart. Alice’s mother then sacks him thinking he must have stolen it.

“This was our way of creating a simple through-line to the narrative,” says Wheeldon. “When Alice falls down into Wonderland, Jack – who has turned into the Knave of Hearts – is being chased by the Queen of Hearts for stealing one of her tarts. Alice follows him through Wonderland to tell the truth, that she was the one who stole the tart. We made Alice a young teen perched on the precipice of adulthood and experiencing her first feelings of love. This allows for pas de deux between Alice and the Knave: a youthful blossoming romance.”

The Royal Ballet commissioned a new score from Joby Talbot. “I had used Joby’s music before for an abstract work [Fool’s Paradise in 2007] and had been struck by its dramatic undertones and his ability to play with colour and texture in his orchestrations. It was also infinitely danceable music. He had also written for film so I knew he understood character and situation. I knew that he would be the ideal man for the job,” says Wheeldon.

Australian Ballet, Alice's Adventures in WonderlandEric Underwood as the Caterpillar with Artists of The Royal Ballet, 2013. Photo © Johan Persson

The music drew rave reviews. In fact, The New York Times thought it was the ballet’s “trump card” saying: “It’s a dazzling array of melodies and shimmering percussion, usefully atmospheric and dancey, yet sophisticated enough to feel like more than a mere support.” Talbot would go to compose the acclaimed score for Wheeldon’s 2014 ballet The Winter’s Tale, which The Royal Ballet performed in Brisbane in July. 

For the ballet’s design, Wheeldon approached Crowley, a seven-time Tony Award winner whose numerous credits include Wheeldon’s An American in Paris along with the musicals Mary Poppins, Once, and Disney’s Aladdin, which is currently touring Australia. He has also designed extensively for theatre, opera and ballet. He and Wheeldon have collaborated on several works for The Royal Ballet: Pavane pour une Infant Défunte in 1996, The Winter’s Tale and a 2016 one-act ballet called Strapless. “We already knew how each other works, which with a show as huge as Alice was a blessing,” says Wheeldon. “Our challenge was to come up with a visual language that was faithful to the literature, but at the same time felt fresh and contemporary. We wanted audiences to take ownership of a new Alice rather than to rely on the visuals of Disney or even the original Tenniel illustrations.”

Crowley came up with all kinds of wondrously inventive solutions, including a whirling vortex created using high-tech digital projections for Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, a giant Cheshire Cat made of various puppet parts, which materialises and dissolves in front of your eyes, and witty touches like a wig and a little carriage for the Queen of Hearts, both in the shape of a heart. “This is the most extensive and complex set that we’ve ever made,” says McAllister. “The Queen’s big heart-mobile was made in London because they had the mould. A lot of the props and the parts of the Cheshire Cat were made there – it turned out that it was cheaper for us to have them made in London and then shipped out. But all the sets are being made in Australia and all the costumes are being made here. There is millinery [being made] in every state in Australia. We’ve got scenic artists in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia making the cloths so it’s a huge show. It’s got 30-odd scenes and around 500 costumes.”

The Company is also employing extra dancers to swell its ranks. In fact, so expensive is the whole exercise that the AB is co-producing the ballet with the National Ballet of Japan. Wheeldon’s choreography is classically based with fun little twists. There’s a Flower Waltz which is reminiscent of The Nutcracker but also has a touch of Broadway about it, a chorus line of dancing playing cards, and a spoof of the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty for the Queen of Hearts using jam tarts. “It was so much fun to make a parody (lovingly) of the Rose Adagio – dangerous though, as it is a ballet hallowed within the walls of Covent Garden,” says Wheeldon.

Australian Ballet, Alice's Adventures in WonderlandJillian Vanstone and Dylan Tedaldi star in the National Ballet of Canada's production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photo © Aleksandar Antonijevic

The show also calls for a tap-dancing Mad Hatter. “We have Kevin Jackson, Jarryd Madden and Drew Hedditch who are all tappers brushing up on their tap techniques,” says McAllister.

Wheeldon has got to know The Australian Ballet quite well over the years. “The company is full of dancers willing to ‘go there’ with characterisations. Australian Ballet is an innately theatrical company and I think they relish the opportunity to get a little ‘cuckoo’ with me,” he says.

“There’s a lot of happiness in the room,” Scott tells the Friends of the Australian Ballet. “We were rehearsing the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party the other day and [all the other dancers] were drawn to the studio and looking in from outside. It’s wonderful to see our colleagues tap-dancing so well. There are a lot of extra skills on show in the production. It’s been really enjoyable.”

Asked how much his experience in musical theatre influenced the ballet Wheeldon says: “I think it’s almost better to think of Alice as a danced entertainment rather than a ballet or a musical. The intention was always to make a crossover work that would satisfy ballet audiences but in the hope that it may introduce ballet to a new audience: to fling open the doors and welcome in anyone who might have trepidation; to say ‘look, ballet can be fun and light as well as dark and poetic’.”

McAllister has no doubt that audiences will embrace it. “It’s sort of like a 21st century version of The Nutcracker because it is very magical. It’s got that coming-of-age story for Alice [like Clara]. Also, the music is extraordinary, the design and visual splendour of it is amazing, but fundamentally it’s a human story told with amazing dance. So, it’s one of those shows where you sit there feeling a bit like the Cheshire Cat with a crazy smile on your face.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, September 12 – 30, and the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 5 – 22.