The dancing, sets and costumes are wonderful in the National Ballet of Canada’s remount of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The invisible star is British composer Joby Talbot‘s new score — a rare opportunity for a contemporary composer to stretch into nearly two hours of music.
The work, co-commissioned by the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, marked the first premiere of a new, full-length score at the Royal Ballet in three decades when it opened last year. As such, Talbot’s music had a substantial burden of expectation to bear — one that it fulfilled.
Although there are many times during the production where there is an awful lot going on in the orchestra pit, Talbot’s basic approach is one of utter simplicity as he builds on short musical motifs. He repeats them, varies them and layers them in all sorts of clever ways.
It’s the fashionable aesthetic of our times in pop as well as art music. It is commonly used now in film (for which Talbot also writes) as well as for live performance. But there’s a difference between following fashion and creating something that will outlive its first audiences. And I think Alice has it.
Talbot’s score had my attention from the moment the curtain went up, in the quiet, short interlude. Although the music is written with four beats to the measure, the castanet counts five beats for each entrance, subliminally suggesting that something a little wacky is about to take place on stage (our attention is not supposed to be on the orchestra pit, after all).
The brass and woodwinds get a huge workout in this score, which also has an electronic component to supply occasional pedal notes and entirely superfluous human voices (held vowels that could just as easily have been played by clarinets, violas, cellos or even an English horn).
Talbot loves suspended dissonance in his tonal writing, leaving our ears on edge in anticipation of the music resolving into consonance. This is another apt reflection of what’s happening on stage as Alice travels through her off-kilter dreamworld.
Then there are the episodes of obvious, broad comedy and saturated colours on stage, reflected in bold, brassy music that sounds like an update of Sergei Prokofiev’s wackiness for The Love of Three Oranges, which is verging on being a century old.
Six years ago, Talbot wrote the music for Wayne McGregor’s short Chroma, also premiered by the Royal Ballet and presented by the National in Toronto. Although using similar techniques, the music sounds completely different — more spare and hard edged — to suit the different nature of the dance.
Among his other works, Talbot translated the pilgrimage to Santiago into music as The Path of Miracles. Once again, the same basic tools and patterns show up in different ways. Here is a short section, where the choir (Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short), sing “The sun that shines within me is my joy, and God is my guide:”
The beauty of Talbot the composer is how he can adapt to specific needs so clearly and recast his signature style in so many different ways.
In an interview for the original Royal Ballet production, reprinted in the current National Ballet programme, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon recalls how he, playwright Nicholas Wright and Talbot sat down in his New York apartment for three days, reading Lewis Carroll and figuring out together what shape the ballet would take, scene by scene. Composer and choreographer remained in touch, sharing ideas and sound files.
Here is National Ballet Orchestra music director David Briskin introducing the result which, as he states “directs the eye:”
It’s not only the score to a ballet that is sometimes taken for granted, but the role of the composer as collaborator, not just creator.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an exceptionally fine ballet that uses classical techniques to tell a Victorian story in a way that feels fresh to a 21st century onlooker. It gets its full due at the hands and feet of the National Ballet of Canada, running to Nov. 25 at the Four Seasons Centre. You’ll find the details here.