Alice ballet brings magic to Royal Opera House
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon talks about his new work, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the first new full-length ballet commissioned for London's Royal Ballet for 15 years, and the first specially composed for the company in 20 years.
Wheeldon explains why he was inspired to bring Lewis Carroll's classic children's fantasy story to the West End stage in the form of dance.
How daunting was it creating this ballet?
It has never felt daunting but it has always felt huge in scale. Like any production that has a lot of material in it, when you start it feels like a large mountain that has to be conquered. But at this point it's done, so we have gone up the mountain and come down the other side.
Lauren Cuthbertson is dancing the role of Alice, what can people expect?
I think people can expect a very different fresh interpretation. Lauren very quickly convinces you that you are not going to be seeing a little blonde Disney Alice, but an interpretation that is a more relevant to today.
Joby Talbot has worked on the music score, tell me about that.
Joby has done a very fine job of creating the score. I think his experience of working on film and his understanding has helped. Saying that, here he certainly hasn't written a piece of film music, he has written a real ballet score.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is a dark tale, is your version as dark?
It captures some of the dark qualities of Alice in Wonderland, the same way we capture the qualities in our minds as children, rather than being a Freudian take on the story.
As a child you often listened to an audio recording of the story, did you have vivid dreams?
You know I think I probably did. It engrained itself in my consciousness. Honestly I never really loved the story of Alice in Wonderland but always loved the characters and loved imagining myself in those crazy situations with the Mad Hatter and March Hare.
The beauty of that book is it allows a child to conjure up so many images. So yes, I think that is what drew me to initially want to translate it into a ballet.
Characters such as the Mad Hatter are almost cartoon- like, did that make it easier to adapt for ballet?
It certainly makes them very physical, they kind of leap off the page at you. When you are creating ballet you need to look for characters that can be easily physicalised.
Monica Mason, the Director of The Royal Ballet, has said that the back bone of a ballet company is the full-length ballet, do you agree with that?
I think it is the way to guarantee you get a new public, a public that are reassured by a plot line. I think new ballet can often be looked at as rather cerebral, and I think quite a lot of people are afraid of that. Narrative ballet helps to introduce people to ballet, fall in love with it, and hopefully come around to those more abstract works.
Many audiences are reluctant to attend the Royal Opera House as they think it is just for a certain privileged section of society. What do you think?
You can only find out about it if you come and see the sort of productions that are on here. I think the Royal Opera House is starting to make itself far more affordable. I came the other night to see Anna Nicole the Opera and it didn't feel like a stuffy theatre at all. It felt like a beautiful very historic special place that had dusted off the cobwebs and was presenting a really good opera and the audience responded very favourably to that.
The film Black Swan has brought ballet into popular culture, do you think it was fair reflection of the world of ballet?
I think a fictionalised film based on a true art form is not meant to be realistic. I am a bit torn, it did fall into a lot of typical cliches representing ballet dancers as neurotic and bulimic. Darren Aronofsky was making a film, I don't think he was really thinking of portraying ballet in a specific way. It certainly put the word ballet back on the map. I just hope people will be inspired to come and see the real thing which is something completely different.
You have had an illustrious career, training at the Royal Ballet school, moving into the company and then the New York City Ballet. Do you miss dancing or do you prefer choreography?
I love getting up in the morning, having a coffee, reading the newspaper and then telling everyone what to do. I don't want to be back being told what to do any more, it is too painful.
Do you think Alice's Adventures in Wonderland will join the great repertoire of The Royal Ballet?
I hope so. That is for the audience and critics who are judging us to decide.
Christopher Wheeldon was talking to BBC News reporter Claudia Redmond.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is at the Royal Opera House from 28 February to 15 March.