How does a 400-year-old art form innovate? It's a question that ballet keeps asking of itself and, for a long time, the answer has lain in pushing physical extremes. Taking a cue from George Balanchine's neoclassicism – the athletically expressive movement that transformed ballet in the 20th century – many contemporary choreographers choose to focus more and more on bodies and technique. What existed for a long time as a way of telling a story through movement has become more simply about movement itself. These days, ballet can bend and twist in irreverent, gymnastic ways; the lustre of form and daring physicality often outshines considerations of set, narrative, feeling.
But a new trend has appeared on the ballet horizon – or, I should say, an old trend rendered new. It's a throwback to the full-evening story ballets of the late 19th century, works that are structurally redolent of pinnacles such as Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. At the resurgence's helm is British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, the artistic associate of London's Royal Ballet. Wheeldon believes that storylines are powerful bait to get a technologically distracted world interested in ballet, while detractors say the approach is populist and designed to generate revenue.
In the past four years, Wheeldon, 41, has turned two totemic works of literature into ballets. In 2011, the Royal Ballet premiered his production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the company's first full-evening narrative ballet in 16 years. It was co-produced by the National Ballet of Canada, allowing them to tour the production in 2012.
In the fall of 2014, Wheeldon came back with his second large-scale narrative work – an adaptation of Shakespeare's knotty play The Winter's Tale, which debuted to strong reviews in London. In February, Karen Kain announced that the production will launch the National Ballet's 2015/16 season in the fall. With Alice reopening for its third run in Toronto on Saturday night, the National Ballet has become an unofficial second home for Wheeldon's ambitious explorations of plot, theme and character.
When he speaks to me on the phone from New York, Wheeldon explains that part of the motivation behind Alice was to find a way to bridge the gap between a popular theatrical experience and a ballet experience. "It's a show that people who have never been to the ballet before really relate to."
Most critics in Britain and North America were enchanted by the production's theatricality, but not everyone was on board. The incisive American dance historian Jennifer Homans saw the ballet as a kind of commercial "dumbing down," a glossy (but shallow) parade of costumes and sets. She points out that when The Sleeping Beauty debuted in Russia in 1890, it was a visual marvel, like "watching Technicolor for the first time." Now she sees these tricks as a stale tourist trap.
But Wheeldon is unapologetic about the commercial influence on his work. "I think some choreographers are purely interested in their own agenda of making innovative movement, and I think some of us are concerned about getting audiences back in their seats." When I ask how he balances his desire to appeal to an audience with his own creative interests, he tells me that the two go hand in hand. "I consider myself an entertainer. I think it's possible to be innovative while making interesting dance that can be enjoyed by a long-time dance public – ballet-goers who attend all the time and know what they're seeing – and first-time audiences."
Wheeldon has relished the opportunities to collaborate with composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley (both also worked with him on The Winter's Tale) and hopes to keep expanding his partnerships, adding fashion designers, visual artists and more young composers to the list. Interestingly, Wheeldon spent most of his early choreographic career focused on conceptual and non-narrative work. I ask him about a quote I'd read in regards to his 2001 ballet Polyphonia, that he'd been trying to "make the music visible" – an objective that seems at odds with his current focus on theme, character and arc. He explains that the quote had to do with making the spikiness and complexity of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti something he could sculpt kinetically and turn into movement. But he adds that, regardless of his creative entry point, his goals are really the same.
"People go to the theatre to be moved in some way. You can do that through investigating an abstract idea, like making music come alive onstage, or through the telling of a deeply emotional story. There was a long period of time when ballet was becoming purely physical, very much about how high the leg can go, how off-kilter we can push a certain movement. There was definitely a place for that aesthetic, but I think ballet is coming back around to a softer, more poetic, more emotional place."
He won't let me off the phone before adding how much he loves the National Ballet of Canada. "They have the spirit, energy and athleticism of an American company, but at the same time they have this tradition of telling stories. The dancers are very open – they love having the choreographer in the room and they respond very quickly, with such focus, and also with good-naturedness which, you know, I always associate with Canadians."
When I can't help but laugh (modestly), he adds, "It's a very lovely place to be."
The National Ballet performs Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from March 14 to 29 (ballet.ca).
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that this is Alice in Wonderland's second run in Toronto. This version has been corrected.