The Australian Ballet

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Technical Wizardry

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Andrew Killian, Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© 2019
Photo Lynette Wills

How does The Australian Ballet's talented crew bring the magic of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© to the stage each night? Behind Ballet discovers some of Alice's secrets with Director of Technical and Production, Jon Buswell.

There’s a scene at the beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland© where a picnic table laden with treats suddenly grows bigger, before your very eyes. Not only that, but Alice, who is seated at the table, suddenly dives into a towering jelly that has also magically expanded before she disappears down a rabbit hole. It is gasp-inducing, madcap, and all part of the wonderfully creative, and fiendishly demanding stagecraft designed by Tony Award-winning UK set and costume designer Bob Crowley. Bringing it to life locally is the job of The Australian Ballet’s Director of Technical and Production, Jon Buswell.

The garden scene and its magical touches are just one of an extraordinary range of clever technical and design tricks audiences will be treated to in what Buswell describes as “the most difficult production technically - and the busiest show - we have in repertory.”

“(Alice is) the most difficult production technically and the busiest show we have in repertory.” — Jon Buswell
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Principal Artist Benedicte Bemet, Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© 2019
Photo Lynette Wills

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Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© 2019
Photo Ally Deacon

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© requires 50 per cent more production and technical staff than other productions, including eight wig dressers (normally two to three), 10 costume dressers rather than the standard six to eight, four or five props staff as opposed to two, and seven flymen overseeing the constant scene changes compared with the standard four.

“Every theatrical effect you can think of is in there, apart from water,” says Buswell.

Before Alice’s 2017 Australian premiere, the team flew to the UK to meet with Crowley. “We sat with Bob, a designer of huge reputation, in his studio in Islington and he just looked at us over his glasses and said, ‘What you’ve got to realise is this show is a monster and you should never underestimate how complicated it is. It looks easy but it’s not.’ And he was dead right.”

“What you’ve got to realise is this show is a monster and you should never underestimate how complicated it is. It looks easy but it’s not.” — Bob Crow­ley

You would be wrong to assume Alice’s ability to suddenly shrink and grow, or the eerily disappearing-then-reappearing Cheshire Cat, are simply digital effects.

“No, not at all, it’s quite manual really. In terms of theatre magic, it’s quite traditional, it’s just a really clever design,” says Buswell.

The picnic table, for example, conceals four crew members: two operators overseeing the switch that expands the table and the lift that sees the ‘photographer’ suddenly disappear down into the jelly, only to miraculously reappear as a rabbit, a wig dresser and make-up artist having cleverly and speedily affected the change. An assistant stage manager completes the team. “It’s a bit of a squeeze really.”

The Alice who falls down the rabbit hole is a puppet manipulated by four dancers, while the mad hatter’s theatre curtain is simply operated by a string pulley. “It’s no more complicated than that and gets back to Bob’s idea of [using] traditional theatre. And that’s why the crew are so busy.”

As with any live theatre there is plenty that could go wrong, the table mechanism could fail, the giant electronic Kabuki cards that appear during the Queen of Heart’s court scene could glitch and the various integrated projections could get stuck. But with enough preparation and the experience and knowledge gained from Alice’s 2017 outing Buswell is confident all should be right on the night.

“We were terrified going into it, but we pulled it off.”

If the crew need any further affirmation of just how accomplished a show it is, they need look no further than the words of Christopher Wheeldon, Alice’s acclaimed British choreographer.

“Christopher Wheeldon said he thought it was the best one yet,” Buswell says. “So that was quite an accolade.”

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Alice puppet falling down the rabbit hole, Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© 2019
Photo Daniel Boud

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Artists of The Australian Ballet with the Cheshire Cat puppet, Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© 2019
Photo Jeff Busby

“Christopher Wheeldon said he thought it was the best one yet,” Buswell says. “So that was quite an accolade.” — Jon Buswell

Behind the scenes by the numbers

  • It takes 11 trucks to transport the show and 60 technical crew
  • 18 scene changes in the show
  • 144 characters
  • 350 complete costumes
  • 85 hours to create one Mad Hatter costume
  • 68 hours to create one Queen of Hearts costume
  • 118 hours to create the Duchess Pig and Pepper dress
  • 140 hats
  • 150 wigs
  • 191 pairs of shoes, aside from pointe shoes and ballet flats
  • 9 sets of teeth made for the March Hare and Door mouse
  • 300 lights.
  • More than 40 crew needed to run the show
  • 80 (foam) jam tarts have been made for the show

Experience the magic of Christopher Wheeldon's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland©for yourself.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland©