National Ballet of Canada
January 18, 2013
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2013 by Alexandra Tomalonis
Christopher Wheeldon has said in several interviews, including one with this writer more than a decade ago, that he is very much interested not only in design, but in returning to an aesthetic in which design and music are equal partners with choreography. That aesthetic is very much evident in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Wheeldon’s very first three-act ballet, danced here this week by the National Ballet of Canada. The sets and costumes, by Bob Crowley, are not only stunning, but ingenious; they are crucial in helping tell the story and they manage to be the most memorable thing about this “Alice” without overwhelming it.
At first thought, Charles Dodgson’s “Alice in Wonderland” (published in 1865 under the pen-name Lewis Carroll, and a staple of children’s literature ever since) sounds perfect for a ballet: an imaginary world, interesting characters, lots of animals who aren’t as adorable as they first may appear. Despite its idyllic setting (Oxford in England’s Victorian Era) it’s a hard-edged child’s world, and Dodgson has been admired for understanding a child’s perceptions and imagination. But when you start putting "Alice" on stage problems arise, first among them the fact that Alice is a child. Wheeldon puts her on the cusp of adolescence, at least in theory, and very cleverly gives her a pre-adolescent love interest in Jack (the Knave of Hearts), a young servant falsely accused of stealing a tart, who turns up in Alice’s dreams of Wonderland. They dance a pas de deux, and Wheeldon never crosses the line between showing a dream love and what Alice might dance a decade later. But the lack of a love story leaves ballet without a center and there is nothing that can be subsituted for it. It's the story of a child in Wonderland, and Alice is a rather passive character, drifting from scene to scene. Fifty years ago, choreographers regularly created ballets that were a succession of entrances and small scenes, but that time is past. If Wheeldon is trying to revive that, I applaud him, but he needs brilliant characters, and that's not something we're producing these days.
This "Alice" has been very thoughtfully devised and constructed. Not only has Wheeldon worked hard to make a coherent production, but he’s looked back to English ballet history, so that his work will fit within that tradition. The first scene, at an English upper-middle-class country house, is perhaps a nod to Ashton’s “Enigma Variations,” in its detail and attention to period, although set several decades earlier and with a much more shallow cast of characters. There’s an Ashtonian flavor to the dances in the first act as well, which may be why that act is choreographically the strongest in the ballet.
Despite the strong structure, Wheeldon doesn’t quite fill out the ballet and although the dancers danced quite well, the acting was tentative. The score, by Jody Talbot, doesn’t help. It’s serviceable, but doesn’t provide the ballet with a soul, nor the dancers very much to react to. This left the choreography very visible and unprotected, and it seemed rather repetitive and not very imaginative. The animals aren’t characterized save by their costumes. The White Rabbit does scurry around, but the others are indistinguishable. They jog, they run, they jump and down, and that’s not enough to turn a very imaginative book into theater. Wheeldon has continued to work on the ballet, one reads, and since he has a solid structure, perhaps he will be able to enrich the dances, or, in time, dancers will find a way to enliven them. There’s the foundation of a good ballet here.
On opening night, the role of Alice was danced (and danced very well) by Jillian Vanstone, a small, lyrical, and very strong dancer, especially lovely in the first act. The role of Alice is quite taxing. She’s on stage in just about every scene and has at least a dozen solos. Vanstone didn’t tire, but she didn’t grow, didn’t change act by act, either. She seemed suddenly nearly grown up in the final pas de deuxn (with Naoya Ebe as Jack), but Carroll’s “Alice” isn’t really about sexual awakening. Greta Hodgkinson, one of the company’s most beloved stars and a very elegant dancer, is perhaps too elegant and too slight to be perfect as the Queen of Hearts. She was certainly very authoritative, but having a tall-girl-and-four-short-boys affectionate mock of the Rose Adagio danced by Hodgkinson and four men who were each at least six inches taller than she and built like football players didn’t work (and do the kick in the crotch and other mild vulgarities really belong in something that wants to be a classical ballet?). Aleksandar Antonijevic, as Lewis Carroll/The White Rabbit (Wheeldon doubles every character in Wonderland with someone in Alice’s family) is another very fine dancer, but made little of what can be a very commanding role. The company may have been at a disadvantage because, even though “Alice” was a co-production with Britain’s Royal Ballet, it was built on the British dancers, and NBoC’s casts are stepping into very well-tailored roles.
Wheeldon’s “Alice” is strong enough, though, and was strongly enough danced to please the audience. “It’s so nice to see something new,” I heard people say again and again at intermission. Wheeldon has done a fine balancing act, too, between making a ballet to which one can fearlessly take children and one that ballet fans can appreciate as well. I was very pleasantly surprised by the strength of the company. Kudos to Artistic Director Karen Kain, who seems to have turned a very fine company around.
The Kennedy Center did a brilliant bit of scheduling, opening the ballet on a Friday night and running it through the weekend, followed by a full set of performances this week. This not only increased the number of performances likely to attract not only families, but Washingtonians who work late and have to be back at work at dawn, but gave the company a few extra days to rehearse, and it showed.
Aleksandar Antonijevic and Jillian Vanstone in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann