February 25, 2011 10:01 pm

The way to Wonderland

This week sees the world premiere of the Royal Ballet’s new production, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a rare thing – the first full-length ballet to be commissioned by the company since 1996 and the first with an original score for 20 years. Many see it as the leaving present of the Royal Ballet’s director, Monica Mason, who has been at the helm for nine years and will step down in 2012.

Yet at the start of the 2008/9 season – which was widely criticised for playing safe – Mason was reported as saying that she had “explored the possibility of commissioning a full-length ballet and decided against it. You are talking big bucks – a million plus – and it just hasn’t felt right.” So what changed?

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Mason rolls her eyes. “It was a matter of having the right person, someone fired up with an idea that could sustain a whole evening.” The person she wanted was Christopher Wheeldon, 37, who trained at the Royal Ballet School then upped and left for New York City Ballet at the age of 19, where he later became resident choreographer. Wheeldon’s work has a cutting-edge neoclassical style that is deeply musical, daring and demanding, and Mason had clearly had her eye on him for years.

“His age and his experience were right. During his time in New York he came back and did several pieces for us, and somewhere between DGV and Electric Counterpoint I asked him: ‘Do you think, in a year or two’s time, you might want to do a full-length ballet?’ But then he went to set up his own company, Morphoses, and I thought it wouldn’t happen.”

Mason could have turned instead to her resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor, whom she appointed in 2006 and who had already created acclaimed pieces such as Chroma. But she insists that he “wouldn’t have been right. I wanted p….” Pointe shoes? “I wanted a classical ballet.”

In an unexpected twist, Wheeldon left Morphoses after barely three years and presented Mason with an idea for a full-length ballet. “He had several ideas but the one that kept coming back into his head was Alice. I thought it was a wonderful idea – full of fantasy and nonsense, nothing normal, everything upside-down – absolutely perfect for Christopher.”

 
Lauren Cuthbertson

Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice

Wasn’t she worried about the prospect of a ballet based on such a familiar, much-performed story – moreover, one already covered by English National Ballet and with an upcoming production from Scottish ­Ballet? “I must say I didn’t know about Scottish Ballet but then I thought: ‘That’s all right – it’s in Scotland!’ The important thing is that the choreographer is inspired. That person is going to spend a year and a half concentrating on it, so the idea has to really appeal.”

Wheeldon was attracted to Lewis Carroll’s tale for many reasons, including the physicality of the characters and the perfect central role for a ballerina. And yet Alice is essentially an episodic dream piece – was he not tempted to try something more adult and dramatic? “The Royal ­Ballet already has a wealth of full-blooded ballets,” he says. “I wanted to create something lighter and more family friendly” – indicating that Alice might find a place in the company’s repertoire alongside Christmas perennials The Nutcracker and Cinderella.

So Mason had her choreographer in the bag, but there was the rest of the creative team to assemble. For this she gave Wheeldon carte blanche. “I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘you will work with this composer and that writer’ – that’s not how it works, unless you’re a control freak. It was entirely up to him.”

Wheeldon approached National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner to write the scenario but he recommended Nicholas Wright (who adapted His Dark Materials at The National). Meanwhile the composer Joby Talbot, who had composed for Morphoses, and arranged and composed for McGregor’s Chroma in 2006, was also invited on board. The three got together in New York to share their ideas, emerging from Wheeldon’s flat with a synopsis and a musical structure – “and still friends”, Mason laughs.

Talbot then came up with a sample prologue of about 20 minutes, which met with excited approval from musical director Barry Wordsworth and Mason – who felt that, with Bob Crowley appointed as designer, she now had the team in place. “They were all experienced people who knew what they were doing. It had the right feel.”

The wheels were set in motion: Talbot produced a piano score for rehearsals, Wheeldon made some initial sketches with the principal dancers. Since a new ballet is so risky, financially and artistically, surely Mason needed to keep a careful eye on proceedings, slinking into rehearsals to watch from the back and demanding daily updates? Surprisingly not. “I’d pop in for a few minutes but I wouldn’t dream of interfering,” she says. “At that stage of commissioning, there’s a tremendous amount of trust.”

This trust extended to casting the lead role of Alice, who is on stage for virtually the entire ballet and so to a large extent carries the show. Wheeldon chose Lauren Cuthbertson, at 26 the Royal’s youngest female principal, as much for her acting talents as for her dancing.

“We needed someone who could captivate the audience and make them believe in Alice. With some dancers, you have to tell them what to do with every fingernail. But Lauren is intuitive.”

“So much happens to Alice,” Cuthbertson said during rehearsals. “I am always thinking, ‘How would she react in this situation?’ And I try hard to be spontaneous.”

For Wheeldon, creating a full-length story ballet has been “a whole different ball game. With an abstract piece, as long as it goes with the music and conveys some kind of emotion, you can pretty much go anywhere. So in some ways you are more limited with a full-length – but also it’s more rewarding.”

Talbot, for his part, found that the onus is on the music as much as the dancing to push the narrative. “There are 14 scenes in the first act so I needed a linking theme. But equally important was to create emotion.” Coming after the great ballet composers such as Tchaikovsky is hard, he says, especially when writing a “mad” polka and a full-company waltz, but he maintains, “This is not a pastiche. I wouldn’t have taken it on if it was just going to be ballet clichés. I wanted to find a new sound, the right timbre for Wonderland.” He has scored for a symphony orchestra with an enormous percussion section, plus four female voices and some strange horns, including one that really purrs for the Cheshire Cat.

So here we are, days from the opening night. The company has just had its first onstage rehearsal; the orchestra is rehearsing in the pit and strains of Talbot’s otherworldly Alice theme are coming through the tannoy. The excitement running through the building is palpable; expectations on all sides are high. And what about that “big bucks” budget – did Mason need to get the green light from the Board of the Royal Opera House?

“No: they don’t interfere artistically. It was always likely,” she goes on, “that there would be a new full-length ballet during my time as director, given that we haven’t had one since 1996 [Twyla Tharp’s Mr Worldly Wise].” Alice is a co-production with National Ballet of Canada, and travels there after its London run.

And does Mason feel personally responsible for delivering a success? A long pause. “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.”

Perhaps, then, Mason’s directorial strength is not so much as a bold visionary but as a facilitator, a talent-nurturer, a putter-together of the “right” people – skills acquired during her 53 years with the Royal Ballet as dancer, coach and finally director. Even if Alice is not a runaway hit, it seems unlikely that, when her contract expires in July 2012, all that invaluable experience will be put to grass. “I’m not about to vanish into the sunset,” she says. “I’m going to wait and see what’s on offer. You know, people have a habit of coming back to the House.”

‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, Royal Opera House, London, from February 28. www.roh.org.uk

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