Stage Door Review 2024

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Friday, March 15, 2024


choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, music by Joby Talbott

National Ballet of Canada & Royal Ballet Covent Garden, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

March 6-17, 2024

“So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible”

The National Ballet premiered Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Christopher Wheeldon in 2011. Since then, it has proved to be one of the company’s most popular ballets. When I saw the current production on March 14 the entire run had already sold out. The reason for the ballet’s success is easy to see: it is a fantastic visual spectacle. Designer Bob Crowley has conceived of each of the episodes of Alice’s adventures with such wit and imagination that it casts all other stage version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in the shade. Joby Talbott’s vibrant, multi-stylistic score is another pleasure, making Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography, curiously enough, not really the ballet’s prime attraction.

Theatre people love Carroll’s two Alice books – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) – so much that they keep trying to adapt them for the stage. The Stratford Festival tried its hand at the second novel in 2014 and the Shaw Festival the first in 2016. The reason these adaptations founder is that Carroll’s books are episodic. Drama, however, requires conflict or desire.

Wheeldon and his scenarist Nicholas Wright have given Carroll’s story greater continuity in two ways. First, they begin the ballet with prologue set at Oxford in about 1865 where Alice is at a garden party with friends where they are being photographed by Lewis Carroll himself. A lot of unusual people arrive including a rajah with attendants, a large woman with a baby carriage and an odd person who is still wearing bedroom slippers. Alice gives a young man, Jack the gardener a tart, but her severe mother accuses him of stealing it and turns him out of the house.

As in the film of The Wizard of Oz (1939), all the people we meet in the real world turn up again as characters in the fantasy world. The rajah is the Caterpillar, the odd person with slippers is the Dormouse, the woman with the baby is the Duchess, Alice’s mother is the Queen of Hearts and Lewis Carroll turns into the White Rabbit. Most importantly, though, Jack, to whom Alice was attracted at the party, becomes the Knave of Hearts. Contrary to Carroll’s novel, Wright and Wheeldon show us the Queen in pursuit of the Knave shortly after Alice lands after her fall down the rabbit hole. We have glimpses of this pursuit periodically through the first two acts during which we notice Alice’s feelings for the Knave and his for her turn into love.

Designer Bob Crowley uses a wide range of techniques to create Alice’s Wonderland. The journey down the rabbit hole is accomplished by lighting a puppet of Alice behind a scrim filled with the animated projections created by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington of alphabet letters falling down a black-and-white striped concentric circles, not unlike the logo used for Looney Tunes cartoons. When Alice lands she is in a room made up entirely of doors. These are projections of the set projected onto the set to give the scene a feeling of unreality. When Alice grows small, the projections of the set enlarge and the lights on the set dim. When she grows large, the reverse happens but Alice also climbs into an optical illusion box known as an Ames Room.

The appearing disappearing Cheshire Cat is also a puppet but its body is made of distinctly separated parts manipulated by eight black-clad puppeteers. Their co-ordination is immaculate and it is especially wonderful when they disassemble the Cat in one spot and reassemble it slowly in another.

Crowley has imagined the table of the Mad Hatter’s tea party as a thrust issuing from a small proscenium stage. Crowley has dressed the Hatter as an old vaudevillian and Wheeldon has turned him into a tap dancer. Beside expanding the notion of what “ballet” is, it’s a brilliant idea to make a character who is mad dance in a mode completely unlike that of the other characters.

For Alice’s sea of tears Crowley uses 18th-century-styled mechanical stage waves and has black-clad dancers carry dancers in costume about who mime swimming. For the Caterpillar, one male dancer as the head and chest is followed by a bevy of female dancers on pointe under a single canopy to represent the many-legged body.

The most memorable prop is undoubtedly the large red metallic heart in which the Queen of Hearts is transported about as if it were an armoured sedan-chair. This heart-mobile perfectly captures the Queen’s odd mixture of imperiousness and weakness that Wheeldon makes so evident in her dancing. Crowley has placed the female playing cards in tutus in the shape of card suits, obvious only when the dancers bend over.

Wheeldon chooses appropriate types of choreography for each character and gives each signature moves that they repeat whenever they appear. The White Rabbit sometimes has a rapid muscle spasm in one leg or scratches his ear and employs frequent pas de chat. To the Caterpillar Wheeldon gives a breakdance move called “the forward worm”. Alice’s Mother, and later the Queen of Hearts, is given to rising on pointe to when she is angry and is characterizes by rigid rather than flowing movements. Alice is often given to various types of tours chaînés sur les pointes, likely because such constant turning reflects her overall confusion in Wonderland. To the Knave of Hearts, as befits the Prince Charming of the piece, Wheeldon gives frequent grands jetés. Wheeldon establishes a sympathetic link between Alice and Jack, and later Alice and the Knave, by having them mirror each other while sliding one foot heel-to-toe away from the other.

That said, the variations Wheeldon gives Alice and the Knave do not really build to a climax nor the does their first pas de deux. The second pas de deux, however, does build because there is more narrative point to it – Alice and the Knave are pleading for mercy for the Knave because they are in love.

The most memorable dance sequence, other than the White Rabbit’s tap number, is the hilarious parody of the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty that Wheeldon gives the Queen of Hearts. Rather than being absolutely steady on pointe, she totters. Rather than having four suitors who are proud to partner her, the male cards are all frightened that she will choose them.

Joby Talbott’s score is magical. It encompasses a wide range of styles from the minimalism of Steve Reich and John Adams, French impressionism, the dynamism and satirical edge of Prokofiev and Shostakovich to conscious imitations of Tchaikovsky. He employs a huge orchestra which includes two celestas and six percussionists who play more than 40 different instruments. Just as Wheeldon identifies certain characters with certain dance movements, Talbot identifies them with certain instruments. As Talbot points out, “the White Rabbit is associated with the celesta, there’s an oboe d’amore solo for the Caterpillar and the Queen of Hearts is portrayed by a solo violin tuned a semitone sharp – highly strung for a highly-strung character”. The result is a shimmering score that glides along an edge between fantasy and satire, exactly as does Carroll’s novel.

The day I saw the ballet four dancers were making their debuts in major roles – Jeannine Haller as Alice, Alexandra MacDonald as the Queen of Hearts, Spencer Hack as the White Rabbit and Noah Parets as the Mad Hatter. Such was their excellence and confidence I had no idea they were making their debuts until I consulted the programme after the performance. Haller dances with delightful precision and well conveys Alice’s emotions from wonder to anger to love. MacDonald deliciously characterizes the Queen as person who bullies to hide her own failings. As Alice’s Mother and as the Queen, MacDonald seems dauntingly inflexible. Yet, MacDonald is impressively comic in the Queen’s so-called “Tart Adagio” in showing how the Queen struggles to maintain her hauteur even as she dances with such amusing awkwardness – a task which must be extremely difficult. Hack is a pleasure as the fidgety White Rabbit while Parets is suitably manic as the Mad Hatter.

Joining them is charismatic Principal Dancer Harrison James as the Knave of Hearts. He is dashing and imbues his athleticism with elegance and precision. Notable in a much smaller part is Oliver Yonick as the haughty Rajah and later the sinuous Caterpillar, who does the most graceful version of “the forward worm’ that you’ve ever seen.

While the ballet as a whole is joyfully uplifting, there is still room for improvement. When the work first premiered it was in two acts. Wheeldon has added to it and now it is in three acts, with the second act only 30 minutes long surrounded by two 20-minute intermissions. The show could certainly use various nips and ticks. The grotesque scene with the Duchess and the Cook goes on far too long and, given its hatchet-brandishing and baby-tossing, is not even funny. While Driscoll and Carrington’s projections are useful for Alice’s descent down the rabbit hole and for her size-changing scenes, they are not needed anywhere else. To have Alice and the White Rabbit sail in a paper boat is wonderful but to have the background be an animated forest is not. We’ve come to the ballet to see live action not a cartoon.

These points aside, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so enchants the eyes and ears that it makes an ideal introduction to ballet for young people as a well as providing heartening entertainment for adults. It is too late to buy tickets to Alice this season, but make sure you do so the next time it appears on the national Ballet’s playbill.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Svetlana Lunkina as the Queen of Hearts and Tirion Law as Alice; Donald Thom as the White Rabbit and Tirion Law as Alice; Svetlana Lunkina as the Queen of Hearts; Tirion Law as Alice and Naoya Ebe as the Knave of Hearts with Rex Harrington as the King of Hearts (background). © 2024 Karolina Kuras.

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