"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"
The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10 November 2012
by Denise Sum
copyright 2012 by Denise Sum
It is an admirable skill of great choroegraphers to give the audience something it did not know it wanted. However, in times when the fiscal viability and cultural relevance of ballet is often called into question, one cannot be faulted for simply giving the audience what it knows it wants. Christopher Wheeldon does just that with "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".
Wheeldon's full-length creation premiered in Toronto just over a year ago in June 2011 with sold-out shows. It speaks to the success of the new work that it has been brought back so quickly. In addition, Wheeldon's ballet has renewed the NBoC's international profile. The company took the production on tour to Los Angeles in October and will bring it to Washington, DC in January.
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is certainly the most ambitious undertaking in recent history with the NBoC. The entire company is used, with additional dancers and students from the National Ballet School. It is a multimedia experience with tools and technology not traditionally included in ballet -- video projections (often including text), puppets, and the like. At one point, confetti showers the audience from above. The high production value and slick, modern look can appeal to a wide audience of all ages. It is suitable for children without talking down to them. The overall feel is magical and charming, while hinting at a darkness lurking just beneath the surface.
Working with Lewis Carroll's familiar stories, Wheeldon keeps the narrative at the forefront. Especially in the first act, setting the scene does not always lend itself to any substantial amount of dancing. We meet Alice Liddell and her family in a garden party in Oxford, as well as a procession of characters who will reappaer in different guises in Wonderland. A budding romance between Alice and Jack, the gardener's son and a character that does not appear in Caroll's books, is introduced. Jack gives Alice a rose and she gives him a jam tart in return. Alice's mother mistakenly believes the tart has been stolen and sends Jack away. Lewis Carroll consoles an upset Alice by taking her photo, but emerges from under the camera cloth as a White Rabbit. Alice follows him, plunging down the proverbial rabbit hole in an impressive feat of theatrical effects. A moving image projected on a scrim shows the rabbit hole, while a marionette Alice tumbles through it, doing pas de chats in the air as she falls. Clever use of technology and design show Alice shrinking and growing before she is swimming in an ocean of her own tears. The visuals are spectacular, however there is little time or space for more than brief spurts of dancing.
Thankfully, the dancing picks up in the later part of the ballet and some edits to the original production have helped the pacing significantly. When "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" premiered, it was divided in to two acts, with the first act clocking in at a lengthy 70 minutes. In this version, the first act has been split, so that there are three acts in total. Most importantly, the development of Alice and Jack/The Knave of Hearts' relationship is given more attention, as it is central to the arc of the storyline. Alice's search for reunion with Jack gives the narrative direction so that her journey feels less random. Although Carroll's nonsensical vignettes are entertaining to read, in its ballet form, it is harder to hold the audiences attention without a consistent thread.
Joby Talbot's score is whimsical and varied. Recurring themes in the music and choreography helped distinguish the different characters and settings. While most ballets have 2 or 3 sets, this production follows Alice through a garden, forest, ocean, hedge maze, card castle and more, brilliantly designed by Bob Crowley. The costumes are chic, from Alice's purple dress to tutus shaped as spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs. Add details like red John Lennon glasses for the White Rabbit and elegant wigs and headpieces for the corps, and you have a feast for the eyes.
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is not particularly a dancer's ballet. For the most part, the roles lack depth or inventive choreography. Still, the dancers seemed to have fun with it. Sonia Rodriguez, on stage for most of the ballet, was Alice. Her acting felt instinctive and not overdone, as she perfectly captured the mixed excitement and confusion of youth. Aleksandar Antonijevic was a quirky and witty Lewis Caroll/White Rabbit. As the histrionic mother/Queen of Hearts, Xiao Nan Yu made the most of her tango solo and spoof of "The Sleeping Beauty" rose adagio. Naoya Ebe made his debut as Jack/The Knave of Hearts, dancing with a modest elegance. Robert Stephen's frenzied tap dancing as the Mad Hatter provided a delightful diversion.
Wheeldon's ballet is brimming with unexpected moments: a multi-dancer caterpillar reminiscent of a Chinese dragon dance, a waltz of the flowers that spills into the aisles, or a sequence where characters fall back on each other like human dominoes. Perhaps most unexpected is the ending. One might expect Alice to return to the real world and be taken back to the Victorian era where it all started (à la Disney). Instead, the ballet ends in modern times. Alice is in a sun dress, Jack in jeans and a tee, and Lewis Carroll appears as a tourist snapping photos. Alice hands him her smartphone and he snaps a photo of her and her beau. It is a fitting end for a ballet that sets itself apart by being smart, fresh, and current.
Sonia Rodriguez in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Aleksandar Antonijevic in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.