This Alice gets a particularly elaborate unbirthday. Jillian Vanstone as Alice, Robert Stephen as the Mad Hatter, and Jonathan Renna as the March Hare.
The Luminato festival is a lot of things: international, diverse, grand, bold, large in scale, and bigger in names. One thing it’s not is subtle. Which is why the latest show to hit the Four Seasons Centre, a co-production between London’s Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in all its $2-million-dollar budget glory, is the ideal Luminato offering.
First off, it was famous before it ever premiered: it’s the first entirely new and original full-length piece from the Royal Ballet in over 15 years, and the largest production in the history of the National Ballet of Canada. It’s also got big names, big international names, like the English-born, New York–based choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and the Tony Award–winning set and costume designer from Cork, Ireland Bob Crowley (no, he didn’t win Survivor). Until its North American premiere last Saturday, Toronto audiences had been waiting eagerly to see the show’s spectacle of sets, costumes, and special effects firsthand. And the critics are gushing. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a high-quality, high-tech, high-profile, and high-budget production appealing to ballet-goers veteran and virgin, adding a modern spin on a classic art form. Rarely do we ever see such hype and buzz around a ballet, especially in Canada.
Critics have all agreed that audiences are sure to just lap up the rich and extravagant world created by Crowley’s designs, Wheeldon’s choreography, Natasha Katz’s lighting, and video projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington. And since the show’s February world premier in London, they’ve been right. But what does it mean to a performer to be involved in such a non-traditional ballet?
Jiří Jelinek’s Caterpillar is bringing sexy-stoned back atop his psychedelic mushroom.
“It’s been one big trip,” says Jiří Jelinek, a principal dancer at The National Ballet of Canada (and another of the aforementioned big international names) in the role of Rajah and The Caterpillar. “In our set there are video projections, scene changes, puppets flying around and stuff. It’s much more entertaining than a traditional ballet, like Swan Lake, like I would never have expected a ballet to look like this. It’s more like a Broadway show.”
This comparison to Broadway has been common across the board—it’s a show that revolves just as much around comedy, aesthetic, and character as it does the dancing (and sometimes even more, according to some reviews). “We’ve gotten coaching quite a lot acting-wise, obviously it’s a comedy-ballet. There’s The Frog, The Fish, The Rabbit, all kinds of different and crazy characters…You have to be careful it’s not too much, you know, not too much. Or not enough, then it’s not funny.”
Though Jelinek says he’s thankful that The Caterpillar, with an understated costume and a chorus of lady caterpillars as his glittery tail, is more suave than silly (played by the Royal Ballet’s Eric Underwood here), so he’s got less of an acting stretch to contend with.
Zdenek Konvalina leaps for love as The Knave of Hearts.
“My character is not very funny, he’s more sexual and kind of stoned the whole way through. I’m a stoned, sexy caterpillar across the stage…showing Alice the Underworld. I can identify myself with it, I’m like that sometimes,” he laughs. But known around the world for dancing as the brooding title character in Onegin, he’s probably not joking. But for other roles, like the tyrannical Queen of Hearts, dancers suddenly require the timing of comedians and sketch actors, while tasked with the daunting job of conveying the intricate wordplay, allusions, metaphors, and insight into Alice’s mind found inside Lewis Carroll’s original text and adding their own twist to these highly beloved characters and well-known characters. Even a pro like Crowley found this production a challenge, in trying to design almost 300 costumes, including playing cards flexible enough to dance in, and a Cheshire Cat who can disappear and reappear at will.
After the theatrical fiasco that was Broadway’s Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, we know that the B-word doesn’t always make a hit, especially when the story of Alice and all her fellow Wonderlandians has been re-interpreted so often, and so often unsuccessfully, for the stage or screen. But the overall consensus is that, finally, someone got it right.
“I think it works quite well as a ballet. It’s quite a crazy story, it’s asking for movement,” says Jelinek, adding that newer, non-traditional ballets certainly have a place in larger companies’ seasons alongside the classics. “Usually in big ballets, you have one, two, three, maybe four dancers as main characters—a couple, best friends, maybe their parents. Of course here there are principals, but after that there are many, many characters. And that’s what makes the story, you don’t get bored. There’s always something going on, or someone new appearing on stage. It’s more entertaining for people who have never been to the ballet.”
It was a risk—a high-stakes, big budget risk. But, despite all the tassels, tech, and toys, there’s still one aspect that keeps the show grounded.
“It’s still a ballet, there are still steps you have to do. We’re still dancing,” says Jelinek,
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.