Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland enchants like one’s first encounter with the 1865 Lewis Carroll book of the same name. And what a theatrical adventure it is.
Reworked from the sprawling, less disciplined version that Wheeldon introduced in 2011, the National Ballet of Canada production of Alice, just opened at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, is tightly structured in three acts and anchored in romantic story ballet tradition.
As with the best of fairy tale ballets, this enthralling two-hour-and-forty-minute show is about transformation and self-discovery, complete with a guide, Professor Carroll/the White Rabbit, to interpret the phantasmagorical landscape of Alice’s imagination. Underlying the storyline is a girl’s journey through the confusing and mood-shifting passage of adolescence into young womanhood.
The story opens in 1862, in an upper-class garden in Oxford, where Lewis Carroll, a lecturer in mathematics and friend to the Liddell family is entertaining their three daughters, Lorina, Alice and Edith, reading to them and performing magic tricks. In the background, social-climbing Mrs. Liddell is preparing a garden party for the Dean of Christ Church, while her blustering husband tries to tame her temper.
When Alice’s mother, in a rage over an alleged theft by the gardener’s son Jack, banishes the boy from the household, Alice, who has befriended Jack, is deeply dismayed. To console her, Carroll goes to take her photo and emerges from under the camera cloth as the White Rabbit, his hair blanched and tufted up like a pair of ears.
Down the rabbit hole goes Alice, captive to her Wonderland escapades. All the characters in her life now appear as figures inhabiting the psychedelic world she has slipped into, with each drink of magic potion or bite of a mind-altering cake.
All of what ensues – Alice growing large and then small, swimming in a pool of her own tears or receiving hookah smoke messages of who are you? – is accomplished with the ingenious use of scrims and mind-boggling video and still projections of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, assisted with some brilliant puppetry. (The black-suited Cheshire cat operation is hardly to be believed.) The visuals are tightly synched to Joby Talbot’s score, orchestrated by Christopher Austin and Talbot into a soundscape of eerie swooning to carnivalesque romp to soaring romantic themes.
Jillian Vanstone’s Alice is delightfully light-footed and girlish, transforming before our eyes into young woman of passion and compassion. Francesco Gabriele Frola grows too, from infatuated gardener’s son Jack into Alice’s prince, the Knave of Hearts. Their several pas de deux express true love, with great strength and articulation.
Skylar Campbell, the Lewis Carroll figure who morphs into the White Rabbit, ably carries the through line of the tale, as a protector and a guide and sometimes anxious fusspot, with admirable inventiveness.
Comedy and satire, realized in Bob Crowley’s stunning sets and costumes and Nicholas Wright’s outlandish scenarios, drive the adventure without overwhelming Alice’s inner journey. First appearing as the bossy, vindictive Mama Liddell and then encased in a bright red steel bell of a dress as the even haughtier Queen of Hearts, Greta Hodgkinson seemed to be channelling a lead from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. She delivers a wonderful spoof of the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, her comic talents matched by Rex Harrington’s as a henpecked Papa Liddell, reimagined as the King of Hearts, all in red, tripping around in 18th-century heeled shoes like a drag queen looking for her spotlight.
Top of the list of inspired casting is Piotr Stanczyk, en travesti as the self-important yet grovelling Duchess. He is literally laugh-out-loud funny with his every appearance.
True to story ballet tradition, Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures is also a celebration of dance for its own sake. Donald Thom, the Magician who becomes the flame-haired Mad Hatter, is a Nicholas Brother en pointe in the tap-dancing sequence of the tea party, along with the farcical Vicar become March Hare, performed by a giggly, buck-toothed Jack Bertinshaw to Meghan Pugh’s animated Dormouse. A standout solo is performed by Harrison James, as the slinky Rajah/The Caterpillar in a sequence inspired by Arabic belly-dancing. A hilarious vaudeville-esque variation and some beautiful ensemble performances – the flamingo croquet game and the game of cards – complete the picture of what a well-trained, versatile ballet company can do.
A little trimming in the third act wouldn’t hurt, but if you are looking for big bang for your ballet buck, this Alice is the ticket. It’s an all-ages show comparable to the National Ballet’s Nutcracker that will withstand many repeat viewings.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon
Performed by the National Ballet of Canada
Until March 17, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Photo of Greta Hodgkinson as the Queen of Hearts and Jillian Vanstone as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Cylla von Tiedemann