Flying dreams and dancing animals: How children’s tales migrated to the ballet stage

This article first appeared in the Australian Ballet’s publication, Balletomane.

If Wonderland were a destination, we could take our seats in the pointy end of the plane, champagne within reach, knowing we were on our way to the best adventure of our life.

But Wonderland is just a mirage, a place we believed in when we were five.

That’s the age when we know that magic is within our reach. A girl might fall through a rabbit hole and find a caterpillar holding a hookah.

With a sprinkling of fairy dust, a mysterious boy might make children rise into the sky from their nursery beds and guide them to Neverland. And three friends exploring an enchanted castle could discover a sleeping princess in a rose garden.

Talking, dancing animals; humans who fly through the sky without the help of jet engines; and secret places of beauty and mystery are relics of the Victorian and Edwardian ages, a time when children’s books metamorphosed from instruction manuals on how to behave into fantasy tales written purely for the children’s pleasure.

Classics of this time, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Enchanted Castle and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, offered children an exhilarating new kind of freedom and thrilled them with stories that reflected their flying dreams or fears of losing their way, but brought them safely back home at the end.

These fantasy books can be scary, but they almost always offer a counterpoint to the fear.

When things get too bleak, both the children and the animals lift their spirits by dancing.

Jane and Michael Banks take a long and arduous journey to the heavens, but when they arrive, they dance with the stars, the planets and the moon, and watch their nanny, Mary Poppins, dance with the sun.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there’s a break from the frightening threats of the Queen of Hearts when the Gryphon and Mock Turtle regale Alice with the tale of the Lobster Quadrille, performed to the song “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?”

And in his first incarnation, in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the motherless Boy Who Would Not Grow Up is lonely when he’s trapped in his new home, but cheers himself up by playing the panpipes for dancing fairies.

These magical tales were too vivid and much too much fun to stay on the page.

Eventually they migrated to the stage.

Peter Pan developed into the form we know him today in Barrie’s 1904 stage play, and in 1906 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was done as a pantomime in London.

It didn’t take long for ballet choreographers to join in. After all, fairy tales and anthropomorphic animals were already rife in classic 19th-century ballets like Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

In the early 1970s, the English choreographer Frederick Ashton was asked to choreograph a ballet film based on The Tales of Beatrix Potter.

Afraid at first that people would think he was crazy to create a work about characters like Squirrel Nutkin and Jeremy Fisher, Ashton was soon enjoying the novelty of being treated like a film star and welcoming royalty to the set.

His choreography referenced many of his famous ballets, from The Dream to The Sleeping Beauty but he saved the best choreography for a role he danced himself: Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the washerwoman hedgehog.

As Ashton’s biographer Julie Kavanagh noted, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’s choreography was full of Ashtonian motifs: busy circling wrists, a soft shoe shuffle that looked like Ashton’s own little signature sequence (known as the Fred Step), and “the flexing and pointing of a black-buttoned boot, drawing attention to the choreographer’s celebrated insteps.”

There’s an echo of Ashton in Will Tuckett’s Wind in the Willows, first performed at the Royal Opera House in London: the dance for the Gaoler’s daughter is a nod to Widow Simone’s clog dance in Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée.

Many choreographers have relished the idea of adding different dance styles to their adaptation of fantastical children’s classics.

Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan, created for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1999, included the Charleston.

Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear, who choreographed the stage musical version of Mary Poppins, used ballet for the statues who come to life in the park and tap for the chimney sweeps (the tapping, they said, was the Edwardian version of the 1960s dance craze the Stomp).

Bourne and Mear also went back to Pamela Travers’ original books. Travers loved dance and had been a dancer in her early years.

She instructed the books’ illustrator, Mary Shepard, to show Poppins’ feet in a balletic fifth position, the heel of one foot lined up with the toes of the other.

Shepard compromised by placing the nanny’s feet in the easier first or fourth positions.

Bourne and Mear decided that Mary should glide like a swan as she daintily turns and walks up the stairs.

When The Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, choreographed his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011, he inserted homages to Petipa’s famed ballet The Sleeping Beauty.

The scene in which the White Rabbit and Alice walk through the forest harks back to the dreamy panorama scene in Act II of Beauty, while the Red Queen’s big dance number mimics the Rose Adage.

Wheeldon admits he was a little scared to make fun of one of the most beloved moments in the ballet repertoire, but he and his collaborators “thought it was a fun idea”.

Fun. That’s what the dancing in Wonderland is all about.

“Before Alice,” said Wheeldon, “I don’t think I’d ever had as much fun creating a ballet. Nor have I since.”

The Australian Ballet’s season of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will open at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, on 12 September and at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, on 5 December.

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Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice and Sergei Polunin as the Knave of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Royal Ballet, photo © Johan Persson

Mary Poppins the Musical on Broadway

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle in the ballet The Tales of Beatrix Potter

Rian Thompson, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan, Queensland Ballet, photo © Georges Antoni