“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
June 9, 2011
by Denise Sum
copyright 2011 by Denise Sum
Christopher Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is a tour de force, although not necessarily because of the dancing. It was dubbed the must-see event of the dance season and presented as part of Luminato, Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity. The full-length work, a joint production with the Royal Ballet, was a gamble for both companies with a reported budget of over $2 million. The Broadway-style production is unprecedented in scale and full of surprises. Karen Kain took a risk and it certainly seems to have paid off, as several performances have sold-out and audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.
The ballet begins at a garden party hosted by Alice’s parents. Lewis Carroll is reading to Alice and her two sisters. It is clear that Alice is the most inquisitive one and takes the greatest interest in Carroll’s stories. We are introduced to several characters, who will resurface in different guises in Wonderland. Their behaviors and appearances hint at what is to come later. Alice’s mother is a stern matriarch who rules with an iron fist. She greets her children without warmth, meticulously examining their dress and fingernails. From this, her reappearance as the tyrannical Queen of Hearts makes sense. The visiting Rajah becomes the hookah smoking Caterpillar, while the zany magician becomes the Mad Hatter. In this version, Alice is portrayed as an adolescent, allowing for a romantic thread running through the story. Her love interest is the gardener’s son, Jack, who becomes the Knave of Hearts.
From the garden scene, we follow Alice through the rabbit hole to a series of outlandish encounters in Wonderland. The scenario by Nicholas Wright takes us through most of the well-known chapters of the book including the pool of tears, the caucus race, the mad tea party, and the Queen’s croquet game. The events come to a head at the trial, when the Knave is accused of stealing a jam tart. In the midst of the chaos, Alice awakes. In the final scene, we fast forward to modern times as a young couple is seen reading a book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. The Carroll figure returns, this time snapping photos with an iPhone instead of a old-fashioned view camera. Beginning and ending the ballet in the real world gives the work a sense of symmetry and completeness.
The production is impressive, using ingenious theatrical effects to create a real visual fantasy. The set and costume designs by Bob Crowley are simply marvelous. The use of video projection is particularly helpful in creating optical illusions. It is used to create the swirling tunnel through which Alice falls. The screen also shows a series of locked doors that Alice finds at the bottom of the rabbit hole. The size of the doors changes to imply Alice’s morphing size relative to them. Later, the audience really feels like they are in Wonderland when confetti streams from above (right into the orchestra seating!) and the flowers, danced by the female corps, come into the aisles. A clever design allows the Queen’s roses to change color from white to red. The Cheshire Cat is a large-scale puppet made of several pieces and requiring 8 dancers (dressed in black) to coordinate his movements. This design allows for the cat the assemble and disassemble in unexpected places. Some of the most striking costumes are for the female corps. For the croquet game, the women are dressed as flamingoes. Their outfits consist of satin corsets, fluffy skirts and short wigs. An extended arm with a flamingo “head” on its end becomes the bird’s long neck. In another segment, the women are in tutus shaped as spades, diamonds, clubs, and hearts. When they face the audience and cambré forwards, the different card suits are displayed with dramatic effect. Black or red lipstick completes the look. Joby Talbot’s music is wonderfully varied. His themes are punchy and whimsical. Most importantly, the music always tells the audience what is significant. Pivotal moments are signified not just by what we see but also by what we hear. This is especially important as there is constantly so much happening on stage that one’s attention can easily become divided.
Initially, the ballet is actually not very heavy on the dancing. The steps come in choppy segments and seem to take a backseat to gestures and moving props. The dance sequences gradually become more substantial, including some amusing divertissements and lovely pas de deux for Alice and the Knave. There are several short variations for Alice interspersed between events in Wonderland. She remains on stage almost through the entire production. As the inquisitive Alice, Sonia Rodriguez showed remarkable stamina and effortless technique. Keiichi Hirano was the Knave and tossed off a virtuoso performance with flair. The dark humor expressed through wordplay in the book is re-imagined in silly and awkward movements. For instance, the caucus race involves a hilarious mix of wonky gaits from the different animals. Equally quirky is the extended tap dance sequence for the Mad Hatter (or perhaps, Mad Tapper). Experienced tapper, Steven McRae danced the role in London and at opening night in Toronto. For the rest of the performances in Toronto, Robert Stephen took on the challenge and did an wonderful job. Brett van Sickle was sensual as the slithering caterpillar under the influence. Overall, there are some very difficult and interesting steps buried in the choreography, but it is often hard to focus on the dancing with so much going on. Further, there are several roles with very little dancing. I cannot imagine that any dancers were thrilled to play the role of a hedge, with the possible exception of pregnant corps member Andreea Olteanu.
Although the ballet is very contemporary, there are several allusions to the classical canon. In the garden scene, Carroll (Piotr Stanczyk) is a Drosselmeyer-like character. Later, as the white rabbit, he rides in a newspaper hat cum boat with Alice, much like a similar scene in “The Nutcracker”. There is a dreamy waltz of the flowers as well. When the King of Hearts is summoned, he emerges from under the Queen’s huge skirt, like the children under Mother Ginger’s. The Queen (a histrionic Tanya Howard) then removes the huge skirt and shows her dancing prowess in a grotesque rendition of the famous Rose Adagio. There is even a nod to Balanchine, when the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse recreate the starburst from “Apollo”. Then there are darker, more violent scenes such as the kitchen scene. We see the Duchess (Rex Harrington hamming it up in drag) wearing a bloody apron. Behind her are ladles full of piglets and hanging cleavers. It is immediately apparent that this is not a typical fairy tale.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” uses the entire company, as well as some additional dancers hired for the production and students of the National Ballet School. It is probably the most complex production the company has even mounted and it is satisfying to see all the elements come together in a cohesive way. Although, for some balletomanes, there might not be enough dancing, there is enough to hold their interest. In addition, this ballet is well poised to hook new audience members, which is critical to the NBoC’s survival.
Sonia Rodriguez as Alice by Cylla von Tiedemann
Tanya Howard as The Queen of Hearts by Cylla von Tiedemann