Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland has been interpreted by film directors as diverse as Jonathan Miller and Tim Burton, adapted for the stage by Elizabeth Swados and for opera by David Henry Hwang and Unsuk Chin. So perhaps it is not so curious that two new ballets based on the classic story are premiering in 2011: Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, for the U.K.'s Royal Ballet and the Toronto-based National Ballet of Canada, and Canadian Shawn Hounsell's Wonderland for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

"Sometimes it's just the way the universe coincides with itself, that the National also happened to be doing an Alice production," Hounsell said  in a recent interview with CBC News.

"We wanted to do a version of Alice in Wonderland that would not necessarily be a child's ballet, but something that would resonate more with a mature audience, and one of the things we discussed is that it would have a strong contemporary resonance," he said.

It's been nearly three years since RWB artistic director André Lewis turned to Hounsell to design a new story ballet based on Alice's adventures. Saskatchewan-born Hounsell began his ballet career with the Winnipeg troupe, dancing there from 1989 to 1995. He also created his first choreographic works at the company, beginning in 1990. Now based in Montreal, Hounsell has also created work for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, La La La Human Steps and Ballet BC.

While Wheeldon's family-friendly Alice is rooted in Victorian England, with both a bucolic picnic scene and some dark undercurrents, Hounsell is resolutely modern in his vision for the full-length ballet. Though he's seen it, Burton's distinctively twisted movie adaptation of Alice was not an inspiration.

Modern fantasy world

Instead he went back to Carroll's original 1865 text and based the work on places where today's audiences might discover their own wonderland. The result is a ballet geared to conjure contemporary ways of escaping: into film or music or the circus.

"For me one of the focal points of the story of Alice and the White Rabbit is how everything tends to intersect through the Queen of Hearts. I was interested in making a wink to one of the obvious ways that we are able to escape in our lives, which is to go to the cinema," Hounsell said.

"Most of the kings and queens that we have now eventually walk the red carpet at the Oscars. I liked the idea of a grand diva of cinema and I started thinking back to the day of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford."


Tara Birtwhistle does 'a lot of barking orders' as the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. (Royal Winnipeg Ballet)

Wonderland uses multimedia elements for its backgrounds and to create a fantasy world. The Cheshire Cat is a disembodied voice. Tweedledum and Tweedledee are rappers, complete with headphones and backwards-facing baseball caps. The Duchess, a character not always exploited by other Alice adaptations, appears as a kind of bearded lady in a very physical dance. There is a raucous tea party and Alice, danced by Jacelyn Lobay, resonates "with simplicity and humanness" in the face of this artificial world.

The music — all new — is composed by Canadians John Estacio and Brian Current, with a little bit of Joseph Strauss thrown in. The Winnipeg Symphony will perform the score for its run in Winnipeg, beginning Wednesday, while the National Arts Centre Orchestra will accompany the dancers live when the production travels to Ottawa later this year.

"There's a counterbalance in the two [composers]. John's music has a wonderful cinematic feel and some of Brian's music is a little more left-of-centre, really atmospheric, a lot of texture, a lot of colour and less linear," Hounsell said.

Queen of Hearts

Tara Birtwhistle, a principal dancer with the RWB, has the character role of the Queen of Hearts — somewhat of a departure for a prima ballerina who usually dances the central female role in Romeo and Juliet and other classical works. But Birtwhistle, who has been with the company 20 years, is planning to step down in May.

While challenging, the Queen of Hearts is an acting role that is more geared to posturing than to jumps and requires dancing as a great diva, she said. Birtwhistle will also have to master a new skill: speaking during her performance.

'The boundaries of dance itself are shifting in terms of theatricality…There's not so much elitism, but a broadening of vision so there is a crossover within many artistic disciplines'— choreographer Shawn Hounsell

"A lot of barking orders. There are a few other dancers who also vocalize, which is very new. We've never done that," Birtwhistle said.

Still, "because it came from scratch, and Shawn and I developed the character from nothing, I'm very comfortable in what we created."

As the Queen, she makes many grand entrances and has a suite of attendants dressed as cards. Their dance is extremely athletic and what Birtwhistle has come expect of Hounsell.

The choreographer, who joined the RWB around the same time she did, previously created a pas de deux for her and her husband, Dmitri Dovgoselets. Hounsell's choreography is "dancer-run," she explained.

"Shawn will give you some steps or combinations of steps. He'll ask the dancers to put them together the way they feel they want to do it and then he'll take their combinations and create solos from it or duets.

"When you think that he's done, he'll add something else to it," she said, adding that this method of choreography results in a very challenging form of dance.

Collaboration with dancers

Hounsell said he has developed this way of working over the past 20 years, reasoning that the individuality of each dancer adds something to the role. In the early stages of his choreography career, he described each step on paper. Now he begins with a set of "root phrases" before working collaboratively with dancers, similar to contemporary theatre directors who call on actors to shape their own dialogue. 

"The evolution from that first dance to what I do now is really a constant search to allow the immediacy of the experience to leave an imprint on what the final result is. That means definitely charting a course, but also including, in a very fluid way, the energy and inspiration and the material which develops out of structured exercises," Hounsell said.

Those "structured exercises" are his long sessions working with the dancers themselves and he says the pleasure of working with dancers comes from the ability to challenge each individual.

This process, for instance, shaped his concept for the White Rabbit, danced by Yosuke Mino.

"The White Rabbit, for me in the original story, is a catalyst. Whenever we need something else to happen, we follow the rabbit off into the forest. We follow my rabbit too, but he also has a companion-shamanistic presence, which came out of the process of creating the show," he said.

Shifting boundaries

Hounsell has experimented before with vocalization during a ballet and says it's an extension of what is happening in theatre and other art forms, with dance and multimedia incorporated in unusual ways in productions.

"It's an interesting experience for a dance audience," he said. "The boundaries of dance itself are shifting in terms of theatricality…There's not so much elitism, but a broadening of vision so there is a crossover within many artistic disciplines."

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's last innovative premiere, Moulin Rouge, just completed a triumphant tour of southern Ontario. Next season promises another new production, Svengali, Visions of Glitter and Doom, choreographed by Mark Godden.  

Wonderland premieres Wednesday in Winnipeg and continues through March 13. It takes the National Arts Centre stage in Ottawa from April 28 to 31. A forthcoming western tour will also bring the production to Saskatchewan (Regina), Alberta (Medicine Hat and Banff) and British Columbia (Kelowna, Victoria, Vancouver and Nanaimo).