Wonderland a wonderous new take on ballet

After 20 years, Tara Birtwhistle's swan song performance in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Wonderland heralds a taste of the dance world to come

  • Mar. 3, 2011 8:00 a.m.

Tara Birtwhistle's dramatic interpretation of the Queen of Hearts has her voicing—yes voicing—some unique ideas in this atypical ballet.

It may be Tara Birtwhistle’s swan song tour, but when she dances across the Kelowna Community Theatre’s stage this month there will be no lily white feathery princess types in sight.

A 20-year veteran of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Birtwhistle relishes a good character and plans to tear into her part as the Queen of Hearts in the company’s Wonderland production.

“I’ve very much been a dance actress throughout my career,” said the ballerina, who won a Gemini Award for dancing Lucy in Guy Maddin’s film of the RWB’s Dracula.

To be clear, her acting efforts are limited to the dancing sphere, with parts like Cinderella’s step-mother and Queen of the Night, from Magic Flute, to her name; although, Wonderland takes her well out of the box with some vocal additions to the role.

This production adds a multi-media component, which includes some film vignettes and a unique musical score.

“It’s something that the ballet world has never seen before,” said Birtwhistle.

“…I think audiences demand more than just pure dance now,” she added. “I think they want to see more production value.”

Whether it’s the pace of technology or our addiction to instant gratification, with new demands comes a new place for creativity that Birtwhistle and her colleagues have had some fun exploring in Wonderland.

“We will always still do traditional ballets like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty because that, to us, is like Shakespeare to theatre,” she said, adding she nevertheless believes ballet will change and evolve.

Choreographed by Shawn Hounsell, this show gave the dancers a fair amount of freedom to improvise their own part with some of the dancers struggling to literally find their voice and dance with a mic.

In a way, it’s a fitting way for Birtwhistle to end her time in front of an audience.

“I’ve worked on a lot of things in my career, so I feel like I’ve done what I wanted to do,” she said.

When she hangs up her stage shoes on May 5, Birtwhistle will become the company’s ballet mistress, though she has not had a chance to even think about her impending retirement.

“I have a daughter who is 21 months old and she’ll be coming with me on tour,” she said. “So my mind is really sort of set on if she is going to enjoy the tour.”

Birtwhistle returned to dancing just four months after her pregnancy, but said it took a full year for her body to regain it’s former strength.

As to whether this next generation of her family will take to the stage, Birtwhistle said it will not be her decision.

“It’s a rewarding career, but it’s very difficult,” she said.

Wonderland plays at the Kelowna Community Theatre on Tuesday, March 22 at 1:30 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m. Full-price tickets run $73, while students and youth cost at $42 and seniors at $62.

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