By Jane Rosenberg
In a rut? No need for magic mushrooms or secret elixirs to transport you to another mind set. A trip to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles for the National Ballet of Canada’s U.S. premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” ought to do the trick. And if you think Lewis Carroll would be surprised to see his White Rabbit dive through a wobbly jelly mold to access Wonderland, think again. With artistry, imagination, and twenty-first century technology, Carroll’s beloved tale of sense and nonsense comes to manic life.
With his first full-length ballet, Christopher Wheeldon, former New York City Ballet principal and resident choreographer, scored a mega-wattage hit. In collaboration with the playwright, Nicholas Wright, he has conceived of an older Alice with a romantic interest, in order to create an overarching narrative in the tradition of nineteenth century story ballets. There the similarity ends, however. This is contemporary sensibility all the way, from Joby Talbot’s eclectic score to Bob Crowley’s stunning sets and costumes to Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s brilliantly realized video projections.
Opening on a summer afternoon, we are outside an imposing façade in the garden of the Liddell family (Carroll’s inspiration for Alice being the young Alice Liddell) where friends and family assemble for a garden party, among them Lewis Carroll, himself. Here we meet the gardener’s son, Jack, who becomes the Knave of Hearts in Wonderland and Alice’s love interest. When Jack is banished from the garden by Alice’s domineering mother, Carroll comforts a disheartened Alice by taking her photograph. Draped under the camera cloth, he twitches and twists, coming to life as the White Rabbit. Plunging into the ever-expanding jelly mould sitting on a platter, with Alice close on his heels, the Rabbit takes off for Wonderland and we follow for the wild and rollicking ride to come!
A puppet Alice, swirling Escher-inspired video of a trip down the abyss to Wonderland, stacks of Edward Gorey-like doors, a rain of confetti on the audience, Alice’s pool of tears conceived as a Baroque opera set with an animal water ballet, a pig butchery with a Sweeny Todd-ish cook, a demented Duchess channeling Frederick Ashton, and near strangulation by sausage links; and we have a visual feast to knock any Disney production off the block. And this is only Act One. With so much to see and so much to absorb, the feast was in danger of overfeeding the audience. More mime than dance, too much information – programmatically, visually, and even musically – overwhelmed the senses. The orchestra, under the baton of David Briskin, met all the demands of the shimmering score brilliantly.
It was with a sigh of relief, then, that Act II opened quietly on a darkened stage with a beautiful and poetic Cheshire Cat puppet floating, disembodied, around Alice. Alice, danced pitch perfect by Sonia Rodriguez, who at forty is uncannily able to portray a teen-aged Alice in all her eager innocence, was never off the stage in a role that required performing choreography both classic and contemporary, lyrical and angular. No tourist in Wonderland, this Alice participated, injected in every dance sequence. When she arrived at the mad tea party, she found the Mad Hatter tap dancing inside a re-creation of an English Toy Theater, and jumped up to share the stage with him. A Mad Tapper – what a marvelous invention – the role originating with Steven McRae, a noted tap dancer. Robert Stephen, who performed on Friday night, seemed a bit tentative in the tap sequences, his ballet posture unable to adjust to what one assumed should be jazzier body language.
Alice escaped the Hatter, the sleepy Dormouse, and the mischievous March Hare to find herself alone and lost, in search of the Knave of Hearts, whom she has glimpsed in the first act. Knowing from the White Rabbit that they are all headed for the garden, Alice asked the way of a hookah-smoking caterpillar, danced by Jiri Jelinek. In a sensuously choreographed sequence, the caterpillar and his entourage of female attendants put me in mind of the “Arabian Coffee” divertissement from “Nutcracker.” Jelinek managed the clever choreography, pumping his stomach like a belly dancer, while exuding intensely masculine charm.
Alice found her way to the flower garden, and we finally experienced Wheeldon’s mastery of ensemble choreography. To a waltz that sounded like Johann Strauss on magic mushrooms, the flowers bent and swayed: part Petipa, part Busby Berkeley, yet overlaid with Wheeldon’s sense of humor. And in classic tradition, the Knave, as danced by the virtuosic Guillaume Cote, partnered Rodriguez in a tender pas de deux.
When the curtain rose on the fabulous Queen’s garden of Act III, the audience let out an audible gasp of astonishment. This scene was perfection, not only in its interpretation of Carroll’s tale, but also for the clever and hilarious choreography. An opening pas de trois for three gardeners, who unsuccessfully attempted to paint the roses red; followed by ballerinas bedecked as flamingos; and four small children tumbling across the stage as hedgehog croquet balls was an imaginative delight.
But the award for the wackiest, most inspired performance of the ballet goes to Greta Hodgkinson as the Red Queen. In a musical and choreographic spoof of the “Rose Adagio” from “Sleeping Beauty,” Hodgkinson danced, not with Aurora’s four princely suitors, but with four terrified, browbeaten cards. Alternately posing sweetly in attitude or glaring angrily, she was lifted off her feet, only to be deposited unceremoniously on the ground. And instead of offering roses, the cards handed her jam tarts, as she stuffed her face and danced.
In the courtroom scene, stacked mile high with cards, we were treated to dancing hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds, a vaudevillian solo for the White Rabbit danced splendidly by Aleksandar Antonijevic, and a pas de deux of the Queen and Executioner. The Canadian company shines through this and every scene with their high level of craft and artistry. Though Alice danced tenderly with the Knave of Hearts (Here Talbot’s music, so magical throughout, was at its weakest, conjuring sounds of bombastic movie soundtracks.), the Queen remained unmoved and ordered his execution for stealing the tarts. With no hope in sight, Alice knocked over a witness, causing a domino effect, as all assembled toppled over. Alice and the Knave made their escape, and Alice was propelled back into the real world – one with a slightly different spin than the opening scene and rather intriguing in its message: that despite the fact that Carroll’s novel was penned nearly 150 years ago, it’s as fresh and timeless as the day it was published.
The ballet is on view at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles through October 21st and will travel to the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. in January 2013.
Sonia Rodriguez photos by Bruce Zinger.
Greta Hodgkinson and Aleksandar Antonijevic photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.
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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.
To read more iRoM reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.