Joby Talbot

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The composer of the ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland talks about White Rabbits, the Queen of Hearts and why his work is nothing like a Beatrix Potter tale

Earlier this year the Royal Ballet staged Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the first full-length narrative ballet it had commissioned in 15 years, written by composer Joby Talbot and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The ballet is being released on DVD on 29 September and will be revived at the Royal Opera House in Spring 2012. We spoke to the composer about the challenge of turning Lewis Carroll’s pun-and-poetry-packed book into a ballet… and why it nearly sent him mad.

The music you’ve written in the past has been very varied – film music, chamber works – but you’ve only recently turned to ballet. What attracted you to the art form?
When I was a student at the Guildhall [School of Music and Drama] we did a project with the London Contemporary Dance School, which I really enjoyed and I always hoped that I’d get to work properly in dance but then I was never asked – and then I was. I provided the music for Wayne McGregor's piece Chroma at the Royal Ballet about five years ago. And no one’s stopped asking since. 

What were the main challenges in writing the music for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?
The big challenge was that we had to tell the story in two hours without the recourse to words. Chris Wheeldon, Nicholas Wright [who constructed the scenario] and I sat down in a room for about a week and tried to work out how we were going to tell the story. The other problem, from our point of view, is that in the book Alice is very disengaged, she’s just mildly bemused by all these crazy things happening. So we were trying to find a way of pulling her into the emotional centre of the piece and make it about her journey.

Carroll’s book is full of darker elements, did you tone these down in your music?
We embraced them – when the Queen of Hearts appears she’s utterly terrifying. In fact, the first character that Alice meets who’s actually pleasant in any way is the caterpillar – and that’s quite a long way through. We certainly never thought about the ballet as a kids’ piece: this is not the tales of Beatrix Potter, this is a piece that’s meant as a serious work of art, that may also appeal to young people.

This is the first full-length narrative ballet the Royal Ballet has commissioned in several years – did that add to the pressure?
Towards the end of the piece I did think that I was going to lose my mind. I wrote the prologue, which was ten minutes long, and I was very pleased with it – but I then had to go and write another hour and 50 minutes, which was quite daunting. And the funny thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it’s everywhere. So I would think: ‘Ok, let’s calm down and pop out for a cup of coffee’ and then you’d realise that the café’s called The White Rabbit Café or you’d go for a walk and discover the path you’re on is called The Mad Hatter's Ramble or something. There seemed to be no escape from it.

The DVD of the Royal Ballet's production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is out on Opus Arte

Interview by Elizabeth Davis