When choreographer Shawn Hounsell was approached by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to see if he’d be interested in mounting a new spin on Alice in Wonderland, he had to smile. “I’d been carrying a tattered secondhand copy of the book around for years thinking, ”˜I bet you could do something fun with it that wouldn’t necessarily be for a children’s audience, but contemporary and appeal to adults,’” he tells the Straight over the phone from rehearsals at RWB headquarters.
Over the past year, he’s worked to create just that: a heady multimedia show called Wonderland that’s set not in Lewis Carroll’s Victorian era but in current times, complete with video projections, a hip-hopping Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and a Queen of Hearts whose flamingo entourage struts like a cadre of supermodels. “I began thinking, as adults and society, ”˜What are the wonderlands that we create for ourselves?’ ” Hounsell explains.
The movement is edgy and contemporary—he has the dancers perform in everything from pointe shoes to Doc Martens to socks—as is the electro-acoustic soundscape, written mostly by Canadian composers John Estacio and Brian Current.
“John’s music has a wonderful cinematic feeling to it, and Brian’s has an almost cartoonish grandiosity to it—they’ve really helped define it,” Hounsell says.
The warped, video-amped production, which travels to the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on the heels of its world premiere in Winnipeg on March 9, is a huge departure for the RWB that pushes the form of ballet into delirious new territory. As ballerina Tara Birtwhistle, who plays the Queen of Hearts, puts it in a separate call: “It’s nothing you’ve ever seen a ballet company do before, as far as movement.” Revealing it’s more akin to the darker, warped spirit of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland than to the original 1865 novel, she adds: “As we like to say, it’s not your grandmother’s Alice in Wonderland.”
Hounsell, a former RWB and Grands Ballets Canadiens dancer who recently choreographed the busily dazzling multimedia piece sweet for the Ballet B.C. program Volo, embraces the idea of multimedia ballet productions that make the most of new technology. “I’m 44 and I’m aware in the last 20 years how much our processing of images and information has changed since the arrival of the Internet. Not just in dance but all the disciplines, there’s a very broad crossover,” he says. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm there, because you can explore things in a new way, creating a universe that allows us to carry away an experience we might not have seen before.”
Veteran dancer Birtwhistle says she, too, has seen ballet evolve over her 20-year professional career at the RWB, and it’s become easier to visualize what a piece will look like with all its technical elements thrown in.
Wonderland is as much a departure for Birtwhistle herself as it is for the Royal Winnipeg. For a start, the production will be the last time the famously cropped-haired ballerina performs with the company on a Vancouver stage; she’s retiring later this season to become ballet mistress at the company that’s been her home since she joined its school as a young teen in 1986.
And the character of the Queen of Hearts marks even more new territory for the dancer, who’s known for her acting skills. During Hounsell’s improvisational, collaborative creation process, she has helped develop the Queen, an over-the-top ultradiva who’s equal parts Joan Crawford and Lady Gaga.
“It’s something I’ve never done before: I speak on-stage,” she reveals. “It’s more barking orders, really.”
Though she established herself as the classical star of works like Romeo and Juliet, Birtwhistle has, in the latter part of her career, had several characters developed for her at the RWB, including Dracula’s Lucy. She admits that a few of them have had a darker edge she’s enjoyed tapping into.
“With the Queen, it’s just being evil and grumpy,” she says. “I don’t think that’s typecasting, but I always feel like I can tap into that type.”
She loves the fact that she’s ending her career with one of the most outsized characters she’s ever performed. But she’s pretty sure she doesn’t want her 21-month-old daughter, Isabella (whom she had with her husband and fellow RWB dancer Dmitri Dovgoselets), to see her on-stage cavorting maniacally in her severe whiteface and screaming-red outfit. “She’d be laughing and crying at the same time.”
Crazy characters, multimedia dream worlds, and dance that leaps between contemporary styles: Hounsell, Birtwhistle, and the rest of the company know they’ve stepped, free-falling, into the rabbit hole on this project, and they couldn’t be happier.
The good-humoured Hounsell knows his wildly visual, twisted spin on Alice in Wonderland takes risks, with hundreds of production elements to pull together into a whole. But to him, it’s all in a day’s work, or as he puts it with a laugh: “I decided I didn’t want brakes on the car a long time ago.”