Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a bizarre, ingenious, and creative interpretation of the Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) classic in which choreography and dance take back seat to blockbuster special effects and innovative interpretation. This is a production that those with no particular interest in ballet-The Nutcracker crowd-would enjoy; probably a reason that some dance purists don’t like the production, performed by The National Ballet of Canada last week at Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a joint production of The National Ballet of Canada and The Royal Ballet, and had its debut in 2011.
The ballet is a blockbuster with no expense spared and numerous “How did they do that?” moments. This has to be the most expensive ballet in history with all of the performers (71), costumes (193), pairs of footwear excluding pointe shoes (284), different instruments in the crowded orchestra pit (157), and numerous special effects. According to a promotional poster at Koch Theater where the above numbers were obtained, the total number of stage crew, wardrobe, and wig staff at every performance outnumbers the performers, with a crew of 75 people. Some of the interesting effects:
- The Cheshire cat in Act II is an ingenious creation. The cat consists of eight dancers dressed in black, each holding a cat body part with the group assembling and disassembling the cat several times;
- a large video displayed on the back screen shows Alice’s dizzying descent down a rabbit hole;
- Alice has a growth spurt in a Salvator Dali-type cube, surrounded by a large portrayal of her legs painted on the back screen with arms flowing on both sides to demonstrate her shrunken state;
- Dancers with 100 Swarovski crystals on each pair of dyed-blue pointe shoes snake across the stage in a 30-second appearance holding up a caterpillar’s body;
- Act III takes place in a house of cards in which dozens of giant cards are stacked up to the ceiling;
- The garden scene in Act III features a beautiful, brightly lit garden with moving trees.
Putting aside the grand production and effects, what about the dancing? The choreography is forgettable, as I can’t remember any dance sequences. Maybe this was Wheeldon’s intent, to make the dancing understated to focus attention on the story. If so, he was successful. This is not to say that the dancers weren’t working hard. Alice (Sonia Rodriguez on Friday and Saturday night) was onstage for all but eight minutes of the entire production, with her time offstage probably filled with frantic costume changes.
First Soloist Naoya Ebe was good in his portrayal of Jack on Friday and I was looking forward to seeing Guillaume Côté Saturday evening. I’ve enjoyed Guillaume as a guest artist at ABT but, unfortunately, his replacement was announced just before the curtain went up. What a letdown minutes before the production.
Sonia and Naoya danced well Friday and Saturday; however, it is difficult to a provide a detailed evaluation of their dancing as this production is not very technical. Svetlana Lunkina and Greta Hodgkinson played the Queen of Hearts on Friday and Saturday evenings, respectively, and were expressive in their wickedness. I particularly liked Jack Bertinshaw as the Mad Hatter Friday dressed up in 1970s-style disco attire, tapping away with great energy (by the way, hat makers at the time became “mad” as a result of mercury poisoning used in the felting process). The corps dancing was particularly interesting, sometimes more so than the primary characters. There is a Sleeping Beauty Rose Adagio parody in Act III in which the Queen of Hearts forces attendants to dance by threat of having their heads chopped off by a nearby executioner. It is campy, stupid, and pointless, successful only in breaking up the story line. Shortening the ballet by five minutes would have been a better use of time.
In Wheeldon’s production, the main characters are introduced in the first scene, set at a party on a college campus long ago. In addition to a more grown-up Alice (in the book, she is a young girl), there is Jack, her love interest gardener’s son, math professor Lewis Carroll, Alice’s mother and father, and the Rajah. After Alice follows Professor Carroll down the rabbit hole, the roles are transformed into fantasy characters. Jack becomes the Knave of Hearts, Carroll is the White Rabbit, the mother is the Queen of Hearts, and the magician is the Mad Hatter. The characters are key components of the story until the final scene where Alice and Jack reunite after Alice’s nap on a modern campus, compete with a boom box, iPhones, digital cameras, designer jeans and sneakers.
It is interesting that Wheeldon focuses on an older Alice and her relationship with Jack. I guess it is a requirement in ballets to have some type of a love story. I am not seeking purity here as I haven’t read the book and don’t mind deviations from the original text. I was wildly entertained, taken away from my reality to a strange fantasy world for 2 hours and 45 minutes.