Sometimes the greatest triumph is getting the audience there and the people behind the design of the ad campaign hooked me with the young and lovely red queen on the one hand and the young and perplexed Alice trapped in a room grown too small. The National Ballet of Canada in partnership with the Royal Opera House of London, commissioned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to bring ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to stage with music of Joby Talbot. Although this play made its world premire in London on February 28, 2011 and then went to Canada for its North American premiere in Toronto on June 4, 2011, the weekend’s performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (Oct. 19-21) were the U.S. premiere and the first time the National Ballet of Canada has performed at the Music Center.
This production embraces the Victorian era of Lewis Carroll (who does make an appearance) and surrealism. And contemporary ballet and crosses into other dance genres. There’s also the matter of the Duchess (Kevin D. Bowles). Is that a nod to Les Ballets Trokadero of Monte Carlo?
There’s a bit of gore that seems almost Edward Gorey. I’m thinking of that hanging axe. What? You don’t recall an axe in those Lewis Carroll story?! Remember the red queen is always losing her temper and settling her problems by calling to have someone’s head cut off.
According to ballet master Lindsay Fischer in the pre-show lecture, there are plenty of movement motifs just as there are musical motifs in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. More importantly, there is a parallel universe set up here not unlike Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. All the people in Alice’s waking life are found in her dream. The dance which is three acts is about “discovering the truth” or at least, “finding your truth.”
Alice learns that if she doesn’t stand up “a great justice will be done.”
The story begins on a summer afternoon during a garden party with Alice (Sonia Rodriguez alternatinvg with Heather Ogden) in a purple gown that ends at her calf. She is still a child. She and her sisters being entertained by Lewis Carroll (Aleksandar Antonijevic alternating with Piotr Stancyk) who’s telling stories, performing magic tricks and taking photographs. Alice’s sisters are dressed in costumes but soon enough change.
Then there’s Jack (Guillaume Coté/McGee Maddox) who brings a basket of roses for the day, but Alice’s mother (Greta Hodgkinson/Xiao Nan Yu) angrily throws down the one red rose on to the ground and dismisses Jack. Jack picks up the red rose and gives it to Alice. There’s an obvious affection there. To reciprocate, Alice finds a tart to give to Jack, but when Alice’s mother sees Jack with the tart, she fires him as a thief.
Lewis Carroll attempts to console Alice and takes a photo only to suddenly become a rabbit who then leaps into a jelly mold. Jack becomes the Knave of Hearts, Carroll the White Rabbit and the mother, the Queen of Hearts. Again there is a tray of tarts and the Knave is fleeing from the Queen of Hearts who has her knaves painting white roses red.
The Queen becomes the despotic, vain ruler who forces her fearful courtiers to dance with her in a parody of the Rose Adagio from Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” with music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Would you want to dance with a beautiful but impatient queen who’s favorite phrase is: “Off with his head”?
During these three acts, you’ll see the Mad Hatter (tap dancing), the Cheshire cat appears (this will remind you of “The Lion King”) and the Caterpillar (Jiri Jelinek/Brett van Sickle) who is also a Rajah with his harem. The tap is fun and might seem a bit mad compared to the ballet. The harem and Caterpillar dance mostly with graceful arms and little belly work—this is a Victorian fantasy.
The threat of death is lessened because the oversized hatched has a drip of blood shaped like a heart. And I guess a hysterically vain queen is less threatening than king’s named Henry.
In the end, this is about Alice in her dreams learning to stand up for Jack so that he isn’t punished for the crime of theft. Yet as if to acknowledge there was little justice in for the lower classes, poetic justice only comes in the distant future when Lewis Carroll and Alice’s parents have long since died.
Of course, ballet dancers are all so beautiful that it’s hard to believe such as dashing Lewis Carroll would be a lonely awkward bachelor. There’s little geek or Victorian social nerd in this portrayal
Yet there are some perfectly delightful innovations such as the Red Queen’s dresses. She is rolled in and rolled out and sometimes you might wonder just where the Red King is. You’ll find out soon enough. That mushroom belonging to the Caterpillar is a beautiful blingy piece that makes you think of the gem-laden caves of Aladdin. The harem and sheik costumes are subtle, flowingly glamorous instead queen of bling cabaret.
This is a worthy fun interpretation that gives a blush of hope and sense into the nonsensical world that Lewis Carroll created. The National Ballet of Canada was only at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion performing this piece from the 19-21 of October for five performances. With today’s economy, it was a rare and wonderful treat.