Ballet Stars
Chelsy Meiss in rehearsal for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Spring Morris, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

When Christopher Wheeldon's celebrated Alice's Adventures in Wonderland returns to National Ballet of Canada's stage this week, there will be one big change. First soloist Chelsy Meiss will dance the role of the quirky, tapping Mad Hatter, the first time ever that a female dancer has stepped into the part. "Chelsy is one the most versatile dancers in the company," says artistic director Karen Kain. "The Mad Hatter role is the perfect vehicle to showcase her acting ability, enthusiasm and tap dancing technique." For Wheeldon, this decision came at just the right time. "In the current climate, where the boundaries of gender in ballet are being explored, the option to have Chelsy as The Mad Hatter became a relevant discussion," he says.

We caught up with Meiss to hear all about what it feels like to take on this groundbreaking role.

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Ballet Stars
Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli as Alice and Jack/the Knave of Hearts. Photo by Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy ROH.

As told to Laura Cappelle.

I knew before Christopher Wheeldon even started Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that he wanted me to create the title role. We made Alice together. We feel like she is our girl! She's charming, witty, tough, curious. She's got a very big heart. She's also spontaneous, which helps the show, because you don't have to be calculated the whole time. You can bounce off the characters you come across, because everyone plays them slightly differently.

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Ballet Stars
Steven McRae at the 2003 Prix de Lausanne performing the variation from "Le Corsaire." Photo Courtesy Prix de Lausanne.

This week, young ballet dancers from across the globe have been studying and competing for coveted scholarships at the Prix de Lausanne. This infamous competition has been a launch pad for many of the ballet world's biggest stars. One such star is Royal Ballet principal Steven McRae, who was a prize winner in 2003 with these two outstanding performances in the finals.

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Jillian Vanstone and Dylan Tedaldi in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

In the Prologue to Christopher Wheeldon's recent ballet The Winter's Tale, two boys, princely playmates who one day will become kings, are joined onstage by two women veiled in black. They stand, one beside each child, mysterious, disquieting. They hint at the power that women in the ballet will have over men's imaginations as objects of fierce passions or idealized love. In a brief, evocative tableau, the choreographer foreshadows the darker themes of Shakespeare's play, the ballet's source, and their joyful resolution, distilling in a brief passage the story's emotional arc.

Choreographing story ballets that will appeal to contemporary audiences presents unique challenges even for experienced dancemakers. A too-literal approach or too-traditional staging can seem quaint or flat. And what makes a suitable narrative for those coming of age in a digital era, where there are no strictures on what can be searched, seen and shared? How can a story ballet hold audiences' attention? If mere distraction becomes the goal, how can a ballet achieve the resonance that will give it continued life?

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