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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.

Red carpet treatment

Pauline McLean | 17:50 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

They're rolling out the red carpet in Culzean Castle's grand hallway, when I arrive.

Not for a state occasion but for the thousands of visitors who'll pour through these doors from April onwards for a glimpse of one of the most spectacular castles in Scotland.

When the castle was first handed over to the National Trust for Scotland, Ayrshire carpet companies took it in turns to replace the much-walked-upon carpets.

Today, there's only one local manufacturer and the trust has to pay like anyone else.

It's long been an ambition of the trust to return the castle to its late 19th Century grandeur, when the third Marquess of Ailsa revived much of the Adam-designed interior.

President Eisenhower

When they initially took over the castle in 1946, they didn't have the money for a refurbishment.

The oil crisis of the 70s and the recession in the 80s caused more delay. But now they have the cash for the refurb thanks to president Eisenhower and the american schoolboy he inspired.

Eisenhower was a huge fan of Culzean, first visiting in the 1940s as general Eisenhower.

It was a condition of the handover of the castle to the National Trust for Scotland in 1946 that Eisenhower have the use of the top floor of the building - with it's breathtaking views of Arran - as a thank you for his part in the allied efforts during World War II.

Eisenhower visited four times in all - twice as general Eisenhower, once as president, and more significantly as former president.

"He brought his grandchildren that time,"says property manager Paul Pomfret. "And they spent 10 days at the castle and visiting the wider area - playing golf at turnberry, visiting maybole - he was clearly very fond of the place."

Fireplace unearthed

That fondness was picked up by a young William Lindsay who recalled the president visiting his school and talking about his love of Scotland.

Despite the fact he apparently never visited, he left $4m to the National Trust for Scotland when he died last year, with the stipulation that some of the money go to Culzean.

It's meant that curators can bring back many of the items the house would have held - an ornate mirror bought in auction and that aforementioned carpet among them.

But other artefacts have been much less costly - and right under their noses.

Like the gorgeous original Robert Adam fireplace unearthed in a guest bedroom and the paintings lent back by the Kennedy family who once lived here.

Then there's the 1920s wardrobe - commissioned rather extravagantly for a visit from the Prince of Wales, who in the end only stayed for breakfast.

It was discovered in a holiday house on the estate,and quickly returned to the castle.

Like any large castle by the sea, maintenance is a constant issue and there's further work to be done, not least in upgrading the apartments which bear Eisenhower's name - and now welcome ordinary overnight guests as well as presidents and their entourage.

End of an era

Pauline McLean | 15:26 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

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It's fair to say that an era is coming to an end at the Scottish Screen archive, when curator Janet McBain steps down.

To many people, Janet McBain is the Scottish Screen archive: the face on television when a new piece of film is found, the person providing the introductions at special screenings in cinemas.

Originally appointed as part of a job creation scheme, her first task was to sift through the films in the collection - rather modestly housed in a garden shed behind the Scottish Film Council headquarters in Glasgow.

Her second task - every bit as important - was to begin a public appeal for more films.

"There had been a film archive in London since the 1930s and we knew there was a lot of film out there, but I think many of them were loathe to hand anything over if it ended up hundreds of miles away in London," she recalls.

"People were coming forward saying I've had this for years and didn't know who to give it to.

"We just tapped a nerve and loads of stuff came from shelves and attics and factories and cinemas."

Within six months, the archive had 4,000 cans of film and had to move it from the shed into a basement.

Much of the footage was amateur - giving a real sense of Scottish life through the 20th century.

From the Lochgelly pensioners off on an outing in the 1930s to the colour footage from Musselburgh as the whole community sends off the fishermen for the herring season, the strength of the collection remains the real people it features.

That, says Janet McBain, remains the thrill.

"When you go out to give talks and the lights go down and you see people enjoying these films after all this time," she says.

"And to think I had a hand in preserving that film so another generation could enjoy it."

Some films continue to elude her.

Hunting Tower, the 1920s film which starred Sir Harry Lauder has been on her radar since 1976.

The discovery of a short piece of archive showing crowds waiting in Glasgow for Lauder at the film's premiere gives them hope that one day the film itself will be recovered.

A lot has changed in the past decade. Scottish Screen is no more so the Scottish Screen Archive now comes under the auspices of the National Library of Scotland.

The archive headquarters are no longer in the west end of Glasgow, but on an industrial estate in Hillington.

Technology has changed dramatically too.

"In the old days, if someone wanted to see a piece of film, you brought them in, sat them down in front of a Steenbeck player and played them the original film - if it was available.

"Nowadays, you can see almost any film in any part of the world at the click of a mouse.

"Technology has really revolutionised the access we can provide to the collection."

But it's also brought new problems. Video - which makes up a chunk of the collection - is difficult to preserve.

Maintaining a digital film collection will be expensive and time consuming. But Janet can leave that to her successor Ruth Washbrook and the rest of the team.

She and her colleague Annie Docherty - who started on the same day in 1976 - once claimed they'd seen every film in the archive.

Thirty five years later, with more than 32,000 films in the collection, that's less likely but as both leave this week, they can be proud of their role in preserving Scotland's film heritage.

Good luck to them both in whatever they choose to do.

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