Scottish Ballet's Alice

Scottish Ballet go through the looking glass to Lewis Carroll's mysterious world

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 01 Apr 2011
  • Sophie Martin, Tama Barry and Victor Zarallo in rehearsals for Ashley Page’s Alice

Although it arrives in the last year of Ashley Page’s tenure as Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet, Alice, taking in episodes from the famous Lewis Carrol stories, is his first full length original choreography for the company. His previous ballets have interpreted existing scores – Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – revisited past glories, like Fearful Symmetries, or been part of a mixed bill. For Alice, however, Page has commissioned an original score and taken a subject not easily adapted to notions of classical ballet. As composer Robert Moran points out, the story lacks the romantic drive that features in so many traditional ballets, and has a psychedelic aura that is more Haight-Ashbury than Ballet Russe.
For soloist Tama Barry, working with Page on such challenging material is a delight. “Although Ashley has a strong vision of what he wants, he allows considerable artistic interpretation. He treats us as artists and not just dancers,” Tama elaborates. “The ballet is very real, based on deep ideas and the characters come from a deep place. I am constantly being pushed into difficult places!”

This balance, between a powerful, personal vision and a willingness to collaborate with all members of the company, marks out Page’s reign at Scottish Ballet, alongside the loyalty and enthusiasm of the dancers. Under his leadership, the company has become internationally recognised as proponents of a contemporary ballet style: never held captive by the tutu and pointe shoe stereotype, they have demonstrated that ballet can be both traditional and experimental.

Despite being the most popular form of dance, in terms of audience numbers, ballet has often been disrespected by contemporary dance communities: indeed, the earliest contemporary choreographers, such as Isadora Duncan, regarded themselves as reacting against the discipline of ballet. Yet recent visits to Scotland from Rambert, who call themselves Dance Theatre while clearly relying heavily on classical training, or even Sol Pico’s marvellous use of pointe in her recent New Territories’ turn, demonstrate that the lines between contemporary and ballet have blurred. And Page’s signature piece, Fearful Symmetries, questions the dividing line even as it critiques City greed. The plot of Alice – surreal and episodic – offers him further opportunities to introduce ballet audiences to contemporary movement.

Barry is excited by his role: “The Mad Hatter is a lot of fun, and it is great to have the opportunity to have a character made on me, to see the ideas develop into characterisation.” Having moved from the Queensland Ballet, he is enthusiastic about both Scottish Ballet and his adopted homeland. “For a country with not a huge population, Scotland has always been creative,” he says. “We have an audience that is joyous and vocal.” This audience support is perhaps what has encouraged Page to develop Scottish Ballet’s distinctive identity.

Robert Moran, who has known Ashley Page since the 1980s, when Page first choreographed to his music, supports Barry's identification of the characters in Alice as the driving force. Talking about the composition process, which involved a transatlantic dialogue between composer and choreographer, he explains how, alongside his love for the BBC film of the book, the characters defined his music. “For example, the caterpillar is sitting on a mushroom, smoking a hookah. I asked Ashley: ‘How am I going to write that?’ And he said: ‘I don’t know. But why don’t you write me a tango?’ I had this feeling that the caterpillar was a tango teacher,” Moran laughs. “But that wasn’t enough: he’s a paranoid schizophrenic and, when he is trying to teach tango, he flips out and she’s like – what are we doing now? It’s that kind of thing I have to construct in my head for each scene. Whether Ashley used them is not the point, I had to have that to give me the motivation for the sound, how we move along.”

Head of Wardrobe Caro Harkness elaborates on how Page is intimately involved at every stage of the production, even attending fittings to ensure that the costume design works for the dancer’s role. “For the Jabberwocky, the costume had a cardboard box head. Since the dancer needs to roll on the floor, this box could cause problems.” Page, Caro acknowledges, is not content to have big ideas, but is willing to attend to the challenges they provoke. Harkness also emphasises how a new ballet engages the entire company in its creation: although Page has introduced many classics to the repertoire, including Ashton’s Scenes de Ballet and Balanchine’s Rubies, a new work allows her to be more involved in the development of the costume, once she has received the design. Finding the right material, the right costume makers, is more immersive than simply making slight corrections to existing costumes.

With no Scottish Ballet presence in the International Festival this year, and Page’s time in Glasgow coming to an end, Alice is an important moment in the company’s history. Perhaps by default, it will become the work on which Page’s evolution of Scottish Ballet will be judged, and offers an exciting chance to see what the man who guided them from obscurity to limelight is capable of, across a full evening. And more than this, it will make a claim for ballet as a contemporary medium, expressive of complex ideas and merging spectacle, technique and imagination.

12-16 Apr, Theatre Royal, 20-23 Apr EFT, various times and prices