Our Original Alice Returns: Jillian Vanstone Rehearses a New Generation

By Caroline Dickie
August 21, 2023

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Jillian Vanstone in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

When former Principal Dancer Jillian Vanstone retired from The National Ballet of Canada in 2022, she marked the occasion with Christopher Wheeldon’s poetic After the Rain. The choice of repertoire was significant – Jillian has had a special creative relationship with Christopher since she danced his Polyphonia in 2007 and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011, when her enchanting performance as Alice resulted in an immediate promotion to Principal Dancer. Jillian is now staging Christopher’s ballets internationally, a role that has brought her back to the National Ballet as part of the creative team staging Alice for the 2023/24 season. Here, Jillian shares the details of her post-performance career.

We’d love an update. What have you been doing since your final performances with The National Ballet of Canada?

It’s been busy a time! Shortly after retiring I went to Hamburg Ballet for three months to help stage Christopher’s ballet The Winter’s Tale for them. It was a wonderful experience and I was fortunate to have Piotr Stanczyk with me on the creative team, along with Anastacia Holden, who danced with The Joffrey Ballet, and Jason Fowler, who has worked with Christopher for many years. From there I spent four months in New York City coaching, then I produced a series of outdoor performances for Fall for Dance North here in Toronto, saw my family for a while in B.C. and then flew to The Royal Ballet in London, where I shadowed both Christopher and Artistic Director Kevin O’Hare.

While I was in London, I received a call from Li Cunxin, who is the Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet in Australia, asking if I’d like to join the artistic team as Rehearsal Director. I knew the strength of the organization and they were able to give me the flexibility to continue staging ballets for Christopher, so it felt like a perfect fit. I started in January 2023.

I’m also very grateful to the Dancer Transition Resource Centre here in Toronto, which has been invaluable to me. Their scholarship program has funded my retraining education in Design Management at Toronto Metropolitan University, which I’m completing remotely. When I tell colleagues in other countries about this resource, they are absolutely amazed.

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Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal with Jillian Vanstone and former Principal Dancer Zdenek Konvalina for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 2011. Photo by Sian Richards.

What are the responsibilities of a Guest Répétiteur and how did this new partnership with the National Ballet come about?

Christopher has a team of stagers working on his behalf worldwide and he and his management team decide who will be the best fit for each project. Since I know Alice and the National Ballet so well, they felt I would be the right candidate for this staging.

I’m part of a larger team working to impart Christopher’s vision to the dancers. As well as simply teaching the choreography, we make sure all the details are there, both choreographically and in the narrative elements.  I’m personally responsible for Alice, The Queen of Hearts, The White Rabbit and Knave of Hearts, either teaching the choreography outright or reminding dancers who have performed the ballet before.

Sometimes stagers come in early, as we’re doing this summer with the National Ballet, and then we return for several weeks leading up to the performances. It’s especially important to have a stager onsite during tech week to ensure that all the technical elements line up with Christopher’s intent and the dancers are comfortable navigating the space. There are many complex sets and props in Alice, so we work closely with the production team. Essentially, we’re here to mount the production as Christopher would want to see it from both an artistic and technical point of view.

Alice was a defining role for you as a dancer. What do you hope the new generation of dancers will gain from this role?

For me, Alice was a really enjoyable role to dive into, so I hope the dancers are able to forget about outside distractions and be present in the journey. When I first performed Alice in 2011, I was at a place in my career when I needed to forget about milestones I had set for myself and refocus on the work itself. Alice helped me do that.

One of the most important things is to see the nuance in Alice. The story is easy to read as a light fairy-tale, with Alice just along for the ride. But it’s a coming-of-age story about a young woman in Victorian times who is brave, curious and opinionated. The dancers need to be present in each moment and carry a strong sense of self. I hope the dancers discover a deep understanding of her character.

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Jillian Vanstone and former Principal Dancer Zdenek Konvalina in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Alice is also a physically demanding role, deceivingly so. Could you talk about that?

It’s incredibly demanding. Alice is onstage for the entire ballet, so it really is one of the most challenging roles you can do. If you don’t prepare properly, you won’t have the stamina to get through it. Xiao Nan Yu is taking care of the dancers in lead roles as Rehearsal Director and Principal Coach. She was The Queen of Hearts when we first performed Alice so she spent dedicated time with Christopher and she understands what’s required to dance the role of Alice. The dancers are in good hands!

How does it feel to be working with the National Ballet again in a new role behind the scenes?

It’s been really positive. It’s lovely to see everyone and to have this experience on the other side of the room. It was a bit strange at first, coaching dancers I’ve performed with, but I’ve built the experience I need to feel comfortable in this new role and I’m enjoying it. We’re having fun and there’s a great atmosphere in the studio.

Your post-performance career sounds absolutely tailormade for you. Congratulations!

I’m so grateful to be working for a brilliant company in Queensland Ballet and still have the freedom to work closely with Christopher, who has been such an influence in my career. He was an incredible mentor for me as a performer and is now an amazing person to learn from on the other side as well.

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Hope Muir, Jillian Vanstone and Christopher Wheeldon. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Learn More About Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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