Posted on March 30, 2011
“Curiouser and curiouser,” muses Lewis Carroll’s Alice as Wonderland yields yet another bizarre specimen, and the rapt Royal Opera House audience for Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was treated to a similar array of surprising, witty and truly wonderful dancing entities, from a gloriously psychotic Queen of Hearts and Simon Russell Beale’s inspired pantomime Duchess down to waddling topiary and somersaulting miniature hedgehogs.
As the Royal Ballet’s first full-length commission in 20 years, Alice faced considerable pressure to succeed. Would it live up to the hype (and advance ticket sales) and earn its place in the canon? On the strength of its first run, the answer is a resounding yes, with its crowd-pleasing combination of inventive theatrical storytelling, Tim Burton-esque surreal touches, physical comedy, romance, grand visual flourishes and, most importantly, magnificent dancing.
Wheeldon admits the episodic, chaotic novel was a challenging basis for a narrative ballet, and, with help from Nicholas Wright, he’s done a decent job of condensing material, but there are still too many incidents in Act 1, lovingly portrayed yet distracting from Alice’s journey. The neat framing device, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, gives purpose to the heroine’s wanderings, in the form of a stifled girl finding her voice, but doesn’t diffuse the tension between story and style.
However, the piece is so creative, energetic and downright fun that you forgive moments of confusion. Wheeldon translates Carroll’s erudite linguistic games into movement that flows between beauty and oddity, brilliantly supported by Joby Talbot’s dynamic score, while the dreamscape of the novel is realised through magical staging.
Rivalling Cinderella’s transformation is Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, for which Wheeldon employs puppetry and mind-bending optical illusions. Occasionally, the scenery is more crutch than bonus, such as the unoriginal cardboard waves; more successful are the tap-dancing Mad Hatter, Bollywood Caterpillar and sinister multiple-puppet Cheshire Cat, whose movement is an innovative expression of their eccentricities, and the playing cards, who prove more than witty costuming when unleashed in a technical tour de force.
It’s tribute to the strength of the principals that they remain visible amid the frenetic scene changes and visual gags. Wheeldon has created a joyful role in Alice (Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb and Marianela Nunez), an impetuous, gauche adolescent as inclined to a foot stamp as a pirouette. Her tender connection with the Knave of Hearts (Sergei Polunin, Federico Bonellli, Rupert Pennefather) gives heart to the production, and their recurring dance motifs link the midsection with the frame.
However, the most memorable character is the Queen of Hearts (Zenaida Yanowsky, Tamara Rojo), a gleeful tyrant revelling in her axe-wielding power. Her combination of farce, flamboyance and finesse in a murderous parody of Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adagio exemplifies the production’s strengths: mesmerising spectacle supported by technical surety. “We’re all mad here,” explains Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, and such insanity proves irresistible entertainment.
Photograph: Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Photograph © Johan Persson, courtesy of the Royal Opera House