Newly created full-length story ballets are few and far between. Full-length ballets that integrate modern technology and theatrics are even fewer. Yet that’s exactly what Christopher Wheeldon’s new production of Alice in Wonderland manages to do – with sets, costumes, story, music, and choreography all composed simultaneously for a single production and artistic vision. In a matter of weeks, the National Ballet of Canada will take the stage at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to premiere Wheeldon’s innovative new production of the whimsical children’s story in the US. The premiere also marks the first time in 35 years that the National Ballet of Canada has come to Los Angeles.
The ballet, set to original music by composer (and The Divine Comedy band member) Joby Talbot, was first choreographed and staged on the Royal Ballet in London. However, the project was co-funded by the National Ballet of Canada, so they performed the work shortly after. This co-ownership, between two such large and well-regarded companies, allowed for an elaborate production to take place with stunning costumes and sets (designed by Bob Crowley) as well as integrated multimedia and projections (created by by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington.)
I had the extreme pleasure of chatting with Chelsy Meiss, a second soloist with NBC who will be dancing the roles of Alice’s sister, the Lory Bird, a flower soloist, a card soloist, and even a flamingo in certain performances here in Los Angeles. She raved about the ballet and shared a few tidbits about the production, her process, and the joy of performing in Alice…
“I have to wear a prosthetic beak and all of the costumes are just so elaborate! There are a lot of masks and wigs involved, yet they’re still easily danceable,” said Meiss, clearly excited about the upcoming tour.
“We have a wonderful team of costumers who are coming with us to LA and they take a lot of the pressure off. There are all these big sets and props which are integral to telling the story, so we all have to keep double-checking that we have our props! Many of the characters play several roles too, like Alice’s sister becomes the Lory bird, Alice’s mother becomes the Queen of Hearts, and Lewis Carroll actually becomes the White Rabbit on stage. There’s a lot going on!”
Meiss originally hails from Melbourne, Australia, where she trained at her mother’s dance school before joining the Australian Ballet School. But she’s no stranger to SoCal, having been a dancer with the San Diego Ballet for several years before joining NBC in 2008.
“The biggest difference I encountered between going from San Diego Ballet to the National Ballet was just the size of the company and the scope of the work. NBC has so many dancers and we get to do these amazing ballets like Alice. It’s really an exciting place to be,” Meiss explained. “And socially, we have this great dancer community; having not been a part of the school I was a bit intimidated to be the new girl coming in, but everyone in the company was friendly and welcoming. There are dancers from all over the world here as well. It’s a wonderful place to dance.”
Meiss was promoted to second soloist in 2011, not long before being chosen to dance Juliet in the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s still her favorite role to date, and she will be reprising it again in London this spring.
When asked about working with Christopher Wheeldon in preparation for Alice, Meiss emphasized what an “amazing sense of humor” he brings to the rehearsal process. Her first time working with the renowned young choreographer, she admitted that she was initially a bit unsure of what to expect, but it wasn’t long before her inhibitions faded in the light of Wheeldon’s humor and charm.
“He and his assistant were just a hoot to work with!” Meiss shared. “It’s just so nice when a new person comes in, they stand at the front of the room, you can see they want to be there, and you know they’re happy to be there. Plus he’s fit and young and able to demonstrate exactly what he wants, making the process so much easier.” Meiss described the rehearsal process as being unhurried. But she further explained that this season is the first time the National Ballet will be doing such extensive touring, which adds a new element to the performance preparation. After LA it’s back to Toronto, then Washington DC early next year to perform Alice, closely followed by trips to Ontario and London to perform Romeo and Juliet.
“We literally fly into LA and are performing the next day.” So rather than cruising Hollywood Boulevard, she and her company mates will be spending most of their time at the theater. “It’s so important to take the time to get adjusted to the stage, take everything in so nothing about it feels foreign. That and getting a good night’s sleep and eating well— all that helps me get through a long show like Alice.”
So what sets Alice in Wonderland apart? For starters, Meiss explains that it’s not a strictly classical ballet piece. There’s a healthy helping of musical theater thrown in, for instance the Mad Hatter tap-dances (what else would a Mad Hatter do?). Having studied jazz and tap growing up, this makes the production even more endearing to Meiss.
“It bridges the gap between ballet, musical theater, and new multimedia technology, so it’s very entertaining and accessible.” She describes the show as almost cartoon-like. There are scary moments, funny moments, romantic moments; the ballet offers up a fully engaging show is certainly kid-friendly, but resonates across all age groups.
“It really comes down to great story-telling, and so much of it is in the music. Different characters have their own themes, so you’ll hear a theme come in and you know right away that character is about to come onstage. It has a sort of filmic quality, a Disney-like element and it’s very theatrical. Dancing in this ballet and working to this beautiful score actually made me love the story of Alice in Wonderland even more.”
Overall, Meiss believes Wheeldon’s Alice has longevity and the potential to be around for years to come. The work could spark a new era of original full-length ballets and, by embracing modern technology and a broad spectrum of choreography, Wheeldon is helping to pioneer a new future for the classic form.
“I would aspire to dance the role Alice one day,” Meiss confided. “I think it’s a wonderful ballet to have in our company repertoire. People want to see it and I think it’s really a positive thing that I hope continues.”
Tickets for the National Ballet of Canada’s performances of Alice in Wonderland October 19th-21st are available on the Los Angeles Music Center’s website. If you’re in Southern California, get your tickets now and don’t be late (as we all know how that worked out for the White Rabbit!) I am extremely excited about attending on the 19th. Just looking at many of the clips and reviews online, it’s clear that this is a truly innovative and dazzling production that’s breaking new ground in the realm of long form ballet. The words that spring to mind are “curiouser and curiouser!” And I am indeed!