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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"Off Kilter" has real dancers playing dancers. Still courtesy CBC Arts.

"It just...always looks better in my head."

While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.

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Just for fun
"Off Kilter" has real dancers playing dancers. Still courtesy CBC Arts.

"It just...always looks better in my head."

While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.

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Ballet Stars
NBC's Chelsy Meiss and Jenna Savella in costumes for Crystal Pite's "Emergence." Photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of anticipation in a theater before a curtain rises. Toronto's cultural elite had gathered one summer night in 2006 to celebrate the National Ballet of Canada's move into the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, a sleek new contemporary home for the country's national opera and ballet companies. It was a well-heeled, chatty crowd, but when the curtain rose, a hush fell over the auditorium.

In the middle of the empty stage, dressed in a gown glittering with 3,000 Swarovski crystals, stood Karen Kain. The former prima ballerina paused before making her first speech as NBC's artistic director in the grand new space. It was a moment that had been long in coming.

Kain knew the challenges she faced when she accepted the top job at NBC a year earlier. At the time, the company faced a deficit of well over a million Canadian dollars, no longer toured internationally and had a repertoire that needed new choreographic energy. “When I got the job," Kain says, “there were some big priorities I wanted to address. I wanted to raise the level of dancing, widen the repertoire and make the rest of the world know we exist."


Prima ballerina turned artistic director Karen Kain. Photo by Sian Richards, Courtesy NBC.

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