Dream team Ashley Page and Antony McDonald are going through the looking glass for Scottish Ballet's latest production
FOR those on the outside looking in, Scottish Ballet is in a state of flux. We picture them still reeling after the shock announcement that artistic director, Ashley Page will not be renewing his contract when it comes to an end in 2012. Inside, however, it's very much business as usual. Walking around the company's headquarters at Tramway in Glasgow, the name on everyone's lips is Alice, not Ashley.
The sound of a pianist learning a newly commissioned score emanates from one room; in the costume department, dancers try on glittering new outfits; a giant camera is being constructed in the workshop; and as for the studios, all of them are alive with dancers rehearsing a brand new production for the company's spring tour.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Alice is the latest - and quite probably the last - creation by Ashley Page for Scottish Ballet. As if that weren't enough pressure, the Royal Ballet has just opened in London with its reworking of Carroll's tales, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.
Yet despite this, the two men at the helm of this new creation - Page and designer Antony McDonald - have only one thing on their mind: their vision. Those who have seen their previous collaborations at Scottish Ballet (Nutcracker, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) will know that Page and McDonald are meant for each other. Both of them refuse to take a story on face value, searching instead for hidden meanings and subtexts - and Alice is certainly no exception.
After a long day's rehearsal, Page relaxes onto his office sofa, arms outstretched along the back. Sitting next to him, McDonald - up from London to check his costume designs are coming to fruition - sips a cup of tea. With a friendship that dates back over two decades, it's obvious the men both respect and like each other enough to suffer the slings and arrows of staging a new production.
"Sometimes it's stressful," says McDonald, "because Ashley is very demanding, just as he should be. What's good about him is that in terms of costume, he always wants to see where we're up to - which makes the process longer, but buys us time in the end because it's not a shock. Some choreographers never come to costume fittings, but that's very much part of the job for Ashley, and he's always been like that."
As with previous Page/McDonald productions, the costumes in Alice play a starring role. Not least because McDonald had such a wealth of colourful characters to work with. Most of the main players from Carroll's books make an appearance, including the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts and the Mock Turtle.Unique to this production however, is the addition of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll's real name) as a major character.
To include Dodgson, Page and McDonald had to conduct a whole raft of research, from television programmes to exhibitions, annotated texts of Alice to biographies of the man himself.
"It was fun," says McDonald, "and, again, Ashley really puts the work into it. He came down to London for a week and visited my studio every day to talk and listen, and we went to see things - that's very much part of it."
The resulting show will aim to capture the surreal atmosphere of Carroll's texts, but also gently touch upon the friendship between the writer and his young muse, Alice Liddell, on whom the stories are based. When he wasn't writing as Lewis Carroll, Dodgson was also a prolific photographer - and it's this that Page and McDonald have really tapped into.
"We wanted to find something to hang it on that would make it very different from other dance versions, films or operas," explains Page. "So we decided to put Charles Dodgson as much in the centre of it as Alice herself, and instead of falling down a rabbit hole, she falls into his camera."
Carroll's work is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of so-called 'nonsense literature', which defies the accepted conventions of language and logic. What works on paper, however, can be a challenge to represent on stage. How has Page translated this series of surreal adventures into dance?
"The Alice books are so much about playing with words," says Page, "and we had to try and find another way. So it's the spirit of the books that we're after - it's certainly not an off-the-page version. The books themselves aren't fluid narratives in the conventional storytelling way, they're a series of episodes which end with 'and then the scene evaporated' or 'suddenly Alice found herself in another part of the garden' so the transitions are left for you to make sense of."
Readers of the books will know that the episodes Page speaks of aren't always fully fleshed-out scenes. While that brought some difficulties for Page and McDonald, it also provided them with opportunities to dream up material of their own.
"The kitchen scene, for example, is more like a tableau than an episode," says Page. "The Duchess sits on a stool with a baby, everyone sneezes because the cook is shaking pepper, and the cat sits in the corner grinning. That, essentially, is it - nothing actually happens. So I've had to build a scene out of that, that lasts four minutes and goes on a little journey. The dance had to become itself and in a way depart from the book in order to live, to come to life, otherwise you're a slave to this thing which doesn't give you much in terms of action."
If adapting Alice isn't the most straightforward of tasks, what attracted Page and McDonald to it in the first place?
"Because it chimes with the kind of surrealism that we're interested in," says McDonald."And we're both interested in the kind of wordplay that hides something, where it seems to be one thing, but actually it's something else."
Page nods in agreement: "Almost everything in the book is an encoded cryptogram that actually means something else," he says. "There's more than one meaning to virtually everything in it."
• Alice is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 12-16 April; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 20-23 April and Eden Court, Inverness, 27 - 30 April.