The Australian Ballet

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Taking Tea with the Mad Hatter

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Principal Artist Benedicte Bemet, Edward Smith and George-Murray Nightingale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2019
Photo Jeff Busby

Coryphée artist George-Murray Nightingale spills the tea on how he balances on stage nerves when performing, his affinity for tap dance, and the joy of transforming into the kooky Mad Hatter in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland©.

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George-Murray Nightingale in rehearsal for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon)
Photo Kate Longley

Do you have a tap-dancing background?

I do! I started tap dancing at age three and studied it until I was 16. Ultimately, I chose to let it go when I attended ballet school full-time in London. Tap was always a great love of mine so it's amazing to get to use it in this iconic role.

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George-Murray Nightingale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2019
Photo Kate Longley

What was your debut as the Mad Hatter like?

I debuted as the Mad Hatter in 2019 at the QPAC in Brisbane. It was a wild experience. My family flew all the way from the United Kingdom to watch me. It was the first time they’d seen me dance with The Australian Ballet. I remember my magic trick in Act I didn't work, and I was so frustrated because I wanted everything to go smoothly so I could stay calm for the tea party in Act II. Anyway, that's showbiz! From that moment on, I learnt to ride the wave and stay calm, and I nailed the magic trick in my second show.

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George-Murray Nightingale transforms into the Mad Hatter, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon)
Photo Kate Longley

You've described the Mad Hatter as your dream role, why is that?

Usually in ballet we are told exactly what to do and the characters can be very limiting. I love playing the Mad Hatter because he’s a character that doesn't need to make perfect sense to other people, only to himself. In his world he is the star of the tea party and I love that he beats to the rhythm of his own drum. I also love the process of transforming into the character with the make-up and wig, sometimes I forget that the pink hair is actually a wig.

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George-Murray Nightingale in rehearsal for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon)
Photo Kate Longley

How much extra practice goes into the tap numbers?

Lots! In a way, I’m another instrument adding to the orchestra, so I need to really listen and make sure my tap rhythms are the right tempo. We wear microphones in our pants, and the sound from our tap shoes gets projected into the auditorium. So, If I’m making the right sound, I can't actually hear it over the orchestra. This means I rely on muscle memory during performances, which takes a lot of practice.

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George-Murray Nightingale in rehearsal for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon)
Photo Kate Longley

Do you think ballet has helped you with the rhythm that tap demands? Or is it completely different?

It's not totally different. When learning ballet choreography, each step has its own rhythm, and it’s the same with tap. The difference with tap is that it’s a lot more obvious if you are out of time with the music.

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George-Murray Nightingale with artists of The Australian Ballet, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2019
Photo Kate Longley

How do you get into character?

I find it helpful to imagine how all the other characters in Wonderland see the Mad Hatter and what their relationship is with him. I think about how the March Hare, the Dormouse and Alice see him, and even how he sees himself. I interpret him as flamboyant, which isn’t dissimilar to myself. The part I find interesting about the Mad Hatter is that he doesn't think that he’s mad. It’s everyone outside the Wonderland world that has given him the name.

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Jade Wood and George-Murray Nightingale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2019
Photo Kate Longley

What is the Mad Hatter’s relationship with Alice?

I think they have such a special relationship. Alice seems to idolise him, and he teaches Alice the importance of being herself. There is a moment in Act III where all the characters and cards are lined-up, wanting to escape with Alice back to the real world. Alice has to choose between the Knave and all her Wonderland friends. She pushes the Mad Hatter back, creating a domino effect that leads to the fall of Wonderland. During the seconds before she pushes the Hatter back, they look at each other as if they are saying goodbye. This moment is so heartbreaking for me as they both know they will never see each other again.

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George-Murray Nightingale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2019
Photo Kate Longley

What is your favourite prop in the Act II tea party scene?

Not the top hat!! It’s actually really tricky to use it smoothly in the pas de deux. But I do love jumping off the Mad Hatter’s stage into the big sponge cake trampoline.

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George-Murray Nightingale, The Dream (Ashton) 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

What do you prefer... Pointe shoes or tap shoes?

I’m in a unique position to answer this because I just danced the character of Bottom in The Dream, who dances en pointe. Both tap and pointe shoes have given me blisters, but I think if given the choice I would take tap shoes over pointe.

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George-Murray Nightingale, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2019
Photo Kate Longley

At the end of the Mad Hatter’s tea party scene my feet will be burning, (which is similar to dancing the role of Bottom) but then I’ll hear the applause and it’s honestly the best feeling.To me, the tapping is the Hatter’s voice, while he might not be able to articulate his thoughts with words, his personality shines through the tap dancing as an expression of his character.

You can see George-Murray perform as the Mad Hatter in Melbourne this March

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland©