Cats, costs and curiosities

On stage: a white rabbit, a caterpillar, a very small mouse, a fish and a frog. And of course a red queen, mad hatter, and a girl called Alice.
Front of house: a coterie of another kind –the flock of angels who have backed the biggest new ballet production in decades – Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, a co-production of the Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada.
At the gala premiere on February 28 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, some or all of the VIP backers – such as Lloyd Dorfman, the founder of Travelex, and Sir Simon Robertson, chairman of Rolls Royce – will settle into their red velvet seats to see how their investment pans out. No one has revealed the total budget but it’s certain to be well in excess of £1 million.
This is the first full-length ballet commissioned during Monica Mason’s artistic directorship of the Royal Ballet, and much is riding on it. (The last full length work was Twyla Tharp’s Mr Worldly Wise in 1996.) Asked a few days ago by The Financial Times in London if she felt responsible for its success, there was a long pause before Mason replied: “I’ve believed in Christopher. He’s an optimist, like me, but he’s totally serious about it. He has a lot riding on this, too. I’m here to support him, to give him as carefree a ride as possible.”
Mason’s contract expires in July next year, and Wheeldon, 37, would be a logical successor, representing as he does, the prodigal son. Born in Somerset, he trained at the Royal Ballet School, danced at the Royal Ballet, then made his home in New York in 1993. A year ago, he resigned from the company he formed, Morphoses, and returned to a peripatetic life as a freelance choreographer although he is still based in New York.
There’s another British connection as Lauren Cuthbertson, the only female British principal in the Royal Ballet, was chosen by Wheeldon to be first cast Alice. In the short, sold-out run in London, other dancers portraying Alice will be Marianela Nunez and Sarah Lamb. The Shakespearean actor, Simon Russell Beale – the new Home Secretary in the TV series Spooks – is The Duchess while the roles of the Mother and Queen of Hearts are shared by Tamara Rojo and Zenaida Yanowsky and the roles of Lewis Carroll/the White Rabbit by Edward Watson and Jonathan Howells. The Australian principal, Steven McRae, will dance the roles of the Mad Hatter and Magician in the gala performance and throughout the run.
The scenario by Nicholas Wright, a former associate director of the Royal National Theatre, sounds fantastic in both senses of the word, with pigs being fed into mincers and the White Rabbit sailing away in a paper boat. In the prologue, each of the Wonderland characters has a real life counterpart, so that, for example, Lewis Carroll is also the White Rabbit.
The designer is Bob Crowley who has won five Tony Awards including those for The History Boys, Mary Poppins and Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia.
Jody Talbot, who has composed for both Wayne McGregor and Morphoses, was commissioned to write the Alice score for a full symphony orchestra. It includes a polka, a waltz for the whole company, four female voices and a special horn that “purrs” for the Cheshire Cat.
Wheeldon’s work is the latest in a line of Alice ballets that began in 1953 when Michael Charnley, choreographed the work with décor by the Australian, Kenneth Rowell.
Since then, with the exception of the 1960s, there’s been an Alice on the ballet stage at some stage in every decade – Glen Tetley’s in 1986, Derek Deane’s in 1997 and Francois Klaus for the Queensland Ballet, in 2000.
The most curious thing, however, is that this year in the UK, there is not only one but two new Alices, with the Scottish Ballet set to premiere its version in which Alice begins her adventure by tumbling through a camera lens. With choreography by Ashley Page (Scottish Ballet’s artistic director until August 2012), designs by Antony McDonald and a commissioned score by Robert Moran, it opens in Glasgow in April.

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