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Curiouser and curiouser ballet

Pauline McLean | 10:33 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

How do you go about creating a new version of one of the most famous stories ever written? And a ballet to boot?

Add to the mix the fact that the Royal Ballet unveiled its own take on the surreal story at Covent Garden just one month ago and it gets curiouser and curiouser.

But nothing is getting in the way of the final push by Scottish Ballet towards the unveiling of its own Alice - a mix of Lewis Carroll's Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Rehearsals are underway in three separate studios. Designer Antony MacDonald is overseeing the bustling wardrobe department. The props, well most of them are gone already, off to the Theatre Royal, the first stop in a UK wide tour.

Pressure on

The tension is palpable in the already well heated rehearsal space of the company's headquarters in Glasgow's Tramway.

This is artistic director Ashley Page's first full length original ballet for the company - so the pressure is on.

"It wasn't a sudden idea," he says.

"It grew gradually. When we did other full length ballets, we used Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and I knew I wanted something different.

"It takes a while to commission a piece of new music so it's taken time but the story seemed to lend itself well to the theatre."

The biggest challenge he says, was moving away from the words and numbers of the books (Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll was a professor of mathematics) so Alice uses another of his interests - photography - to introduce the story.

'Falls down lens'

"He was a renowned photographer and we wanted to use that," says Page.

"So Alice in our production doesn't fall into a rabbit hole, she falls down the lens and into his camera."

For his long time design collaborator Antony McDonald, the challenge was finding a new look for the show.

Those iconic images, first pencilled by Sir John Tenniel in the mid 19th Century, continue to have a hold on those who reinvent the story - from Walt Disney in 1951 to Tim Burton just last year. From Alice and her blue dress and blonde hair to the hookah smoking caterpillar.

"They are very famous images and they have enormous impact," says McDonald.

"So we went back to the books but tried not to look at the illustrations.We relied on our own fantasties."

'Own twist'

In this case, it's a Dali-esque caterpillar, whose ruffled green trousers hint at the tango he'll dance, or two feuding schoolgirls for Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or a trumpet-playing mock turtle.

Tama Barry looks to the late performance artist Sebastian Horsley for the inspiration for his Mad Hatter.

"The role was played so recently by Johnny Depp that it would be a mistake to do down that line so we don't.

"Antony and Ashley always have a very fresh take on everything they do. All the characters are there - the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare - but each has their own twist."

Steady hand

But while this is a first for Ashley Page, it could also be his last major work for Scottish Ballet. Late last year, it was announced that Page was to depart in 2012, after a decade with the company.

The original reason was that he didn't want to accept the year-long fixed term contract the board had offered but he quickly released a statement saying he didn't want to leave, and that if the board had offered a three to five-year contract, he'd have happily stayed.

No such offer has been forthcoming and the company is guarded about who will take Page's place when he departs next year.

Having overseen the company's move to new purpose-built headquarters, returned it to the Edinburgh Festival and the international stage, and given it a real sense of direction, some will feel Ashley Page's work is over.

But in the face of further funding cuts, the company will require a steady hand to avoid a return to the bad old days when the company lurched from one crisis to another.

Let's hope the board of Scottish Ballet has someone in mind.

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