“I thought, ‘You know, Chris, it is probably time to bite the bullet and have a go,’ ” Wheeldon recalled, speaking in a clipped English accent from an airport in Texas. “The Royal Ballet hadn’t had a new story ballet in something like 17 years.”
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” opens at the Kennedy Center on Friday. The presenting company is not the Royal Ballet but its co-commissioner, the National Ballet of Canada, making its first appearance in Washington in more than a decade. The movement remains all Wheeldon’s, though, with an original score by Joby Talbot and a storyline developed with help from playwright Nicholas Wright. The ballet premiered in London in February 2011 and in Canada a few months later. Both companies revived the ballet to sold-out crowds last year. In Toronto, fans lined up at 3 a.m. hoping for turn-back tickets. And in the newpapers, on both sides of the Atlantic, the critics raved.
“This production has to be the best dance adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s classic on the planet,” gushed Paula Citron in the Globe and Mail. “Alice” is a “monumental achievement,” she wrote, but it is also, she added in the next paragraph, “a cash cow.”
Wheeldon wasn’t surprised by the qualified praise. “Our intention was to make a ballet that would encourage people to come in, enjoy themselves and then, God forbid, come back,” he said. “There is room in our little tightknit ballet world for ballets that do that, that excite people who haven’t been to the ballet before. So what if it is entertaining. Who said that entertainment was something that we shouldn’t be thinking about in ballet?”
Good question. But survey the works in Wheeldon’s oeuvre, and you’ll find few to describe as entertaining. For example, the focal points of both “After the Rain” and “Liturgy” are mournful pas de deuxs set to somber music by Arvo Part. “DGV: Danse àGrande Vitesse” is a post-
apocalyptic rush for ensemble and orchestra. And “Polyphonia,” with its frenetic Ligeti piano score, is all about bringing technical precision to musical chaos.
All these works are in the vicinity of 20 minutes long, and they were created after Wheeldon retired in 2000, at the youthful age of 27, from dancing at New York City Ballet. He then served as the company’s resident choreographer for seven years and accepted commissions from the likes of the Bolshoi, San Francisco and Royal ballets.
“Certainly, I was lauded, for a long time, for being extremely young to be making the kind of work that I was making on such a level,” Wheeldon said.