Alice's Adventures in Wonderland drops into Toronto this weekend, with the National Ballet of Canada hosting the North American premiere of the splashy new ballet.
A co-production with the U.K.'s Royal Ballet, British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's Alice crosses the Atlantic after a sold-out, critically acclaimed debut run in London in February.
The partnership originated several years ago, when Wheeldon — one of the dance world's most sought-after young choreographers — revealed to National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain that he was developing the new project. At the time, he was in Canada staging his work Polyphonia with the Toronto-based company.
Soon enough, Kain was on the phone to the Royal, which had commissioned the work, to propose they co-produce the pricey, full-length, story ballet.
"It's such a highly entertaining, charming, beautiful production," Kain said of the final product, for which the National contributed $1 million towards the more than $2-million cost.
"We didn't know whether it was going to be good or not. You never know. That's the chance you take. But it wasn’t a risk in terms of the title. The title is fantastic. The title is a marketer’s dream," she told CBC News.
"I just wanted a really good work that would challenge my artists and entertain the public — make them laugh and give them a really good time."
The investment appears to be paying off at the box office, with Alice hitting $1.7 million in ticket sales this week — making it the company's second-highest-grossing production after its blockbuster version of The Nutcracker (created for $2.7 million and worth $3 million at the box office each holiday season).
"Any ballet based on Lewis Carroll's Alice stories hopes to cover a number of functions. First of all, you hope it'll be a good ballet in itself, but you also hope it's the kind of work that will bring in a new audience — the people who mightn’t otherwise go to see a ballet," according to dance critic Michael Crabb.
"There really isn't a rigid division between these elitist notions of entertainment and art. Good art can be very entertaining and, in the same way, what we choose to call popular entertainment can be very artistic."
By all accounts, Kain's gamble is looking like a very wise and strategic move, he added.
After Alice's stellar reviews in London, the National has picked up "what, by all accounts, is a spectacular production for probably a third of the real cost of doing it yourself and bearing the whole brunt of the production costs."
As part of the deal with the Royal, the National Ballet has earned exclusive North American touring rights for Alice for the next three years, which falls in line with Kain's ultimate vision for the company where she became a world-renowned prima ballerina.
"I'm very interested and determined to get the National Ballet of Canada back on the world stage. I think what we do here is extraordinary, but nobody gets to see us except our home audience," she said.
"We have incredibly fine dancers and they deserve to have an international career. I had an international career and that was because the company provided me with that. I want to do that for the artists of today."
The National Ballet debuts Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in Toronto on Saturday, with the 13-performance run continuing until June 25.