“You have to become Alice—the audience knows if you’re faking it”: A Q&A with Tirion Law, lead ballerina in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“You have to become Alice—the audience knows if you’re faking it”: A Q&A with Tirion Law, lead ballerina in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The National Ballet of Canada soloist talks warm-up routines, cheat meals and how to tell a story using body language

Tirion Law in the National Ballet of Canada's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which shattered box office records when it first premiered in 2011, may be the National Ballet of Canada’s most popular show. This month, a new production choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon has a few creative plot tweaks that make it extra magical: Lewis Carroll becomes a character, Alice gains a love interest in the Knave of Hearts and the infamous Queen is also Alice’s mother. With gloriously over-the-top set designs including a mini theatre for the Mad Hatter, a massive house of cards and a horse-size Cheshire Cat puppet, the show—which runs from March 6 to 17 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts—promises to be a spectacle worthy of Wonderland. Here, soloist Tirion Law, who is making her debut as Alice, tells us about her warm-up routine, chugging potions onstage and what a ballerina’s cheat meal looks like.

You joined the National Ballet of Canada in 2018. How are you liking it?
It’s amazing. I came from the Hong Kong Ballet, which is a medium-size company, so moving to a national scale was a big change. But the environment here is great. Everyone treats me like family.

Congrats on landing the lead role of Alice. How did you do it?
I had a few opportunities to show directors what I could do as a soloist: I played the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. With the latter in particular, I think they saw that I could tell a story through my body language, which is key in Wonderland. Christopher Wheeldon came to cast the show last season, and I think he saw me as Alice and was willing to trust me. Plus, I’m tiny—five foot two—which gives you an edge when it comes to playing Alice.

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How do you tell the audience a story with your body language?
You really need to know the story. You have to be the character—if you’re faking it, the audience will know. I’ve watched how other people have played Alice to see how they express themselves. Everyone does it a little differently. Then I’ll listen to the music from the show and let my body take me to that place.

Besides taking the lead role, what’s new for you in this production?
This is the first ballet in which I’m onstage the entire time, so I’m trying to build up my stamina. And I need to get my pointe shoes just right—being onstage for that long makes you sweat, and sweat makes the pointers soft. There’s a pas de deux toward the end of the act, so I won’t have time to go offstage and change.

Tirion Law and the cast of the National Ballet of Canada's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

How do you get ready?
We always start the day with a warm-up class. After that, I usually have rehearsals for other pieces, but we’ll get two hours of prep time before each show. I’ll have a physio appointment around 4:30 p.m., and then I’ll have a light dinner, like a salmon bowl with rice and veggies.

Salmon bowl crushed, what happens next?
It’s around 5:30 at this point, two hours before the start of the show. I’ll give myself some time to read or take a nap in the physio studio. They have these compression boots that massage your muscles to improve blood flow. I’ll put them on, turn off the light, listen to the music from the show and sleep. After that, it’s time for makeup. There will be about 10 of us in a dressing room doing makeup at the same time and listening to music, with one person deejaying—Tene Ward and Selene Guerrero-Trujillo are pretty good at it.

Do you have any rituals before you go onstage?
I always take a sip of water and hold it in my throat, without swallowing. Maybe that’s weird, but my throat can get really dry, so it helps. The crew does a countdown, and whenever I have time, I like to go out while the curtain is still down and feel the light and the stage. That way, when I go on for real, it’s like I was just there.

I hear you get to do some fun stuff out there, like drinking potions.
It’s quite thoughtful—the potions are actually water, so we stay hydrated. There’s another scene where I get to eat a real cupcake.

What are you most looking forward to?
I’m excited to go on Alice’s journey and meet the other characters. And to see it all come together. We don’t get to see most of the set until we’re doing the show.

How will you celebrate after your debut?
I’ll stick my feet in an ice bucket while I’m taking my makeup off. Then I’ll have a big meal and maybe a glass of wine with friends—but not much more than that. Even though we can take it easy the next day, we may still have rehearsals.

What’s on the menu?
When I say big, I mean unhealthy: burgers, fries, fried chicken. A real cheat meal.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.