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Review

A wondrous Alice from the National Ballet Add to ...

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

  • Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon
  • National Ballet of Canada
  • Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Saturday

Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a monumental achievement. This production has to be the best dance adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s classic on the planet.

The two producing partners, the National Ballet of Canada and London’s Royal Ballet, are lucky to have the work in their repertoire. This Alice (showing as part of the Luminato festival) is going to be a cash cow for both companies.

Nicholas Wright’s scenario divides the story into two acts. The first contains the most famous of the Wonderland episodes such as the Drink Me/Eat Me scene, Pig and Pepper, and the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The second act is devoted to the Queen of Hearts’ croquet party and the Knave’s trial scene. Perhaps at an hour plus, the first act is a trifle rich, but cutting out any episode would be a crime.

The ballet cleverly begins in reality, with a garden party at the home of Alice Liddell’s parents. The family and guests become the denizens of Wonderland. For example, Lewis Carroll is transformed into the White Rabbit, and Alice’s mother to the Queen of Hearts.

The one deviation away from Carroll’s story is to make Alice (Jillian Vanstone) a teenager, so she can have a crush on Jack, the gardener’s boy (Zdenek Konvalina). Jack becomes the Knave of Hearts in Wonderland which allows Wheeldon to create three lushly romantic pas de deux.

Vanstone is an absolute charmer. Her technique has always been exquisite, but this ballet also demands an actress. Her Alice is a feisty girl who isn’t afraid of anything, and who throws herself into every new adventure with gusto. She seems absolutely alive on stage, glowing with youth.

As Jack, Konvalina can do no wrong. He has always cut a romantic figure on stage with his excellent technique, and he is every inch the ardent lover as the Knave. His performance is also expressive. The Knave’s beautiful solo in the trial scene where he tries to prove his innocence is poignant indeed.

Alice is Wheeldon’s homage to traditional ballet. The piece is wall-to-wall dancing, all designed to show off formidable technique. Nonetheless, the British choreographer has added his own touches, such as unpredictability of direction, and the unusual ways that patterns segue into each other. The dance itself seems completely fresh.

Wheeldon has also given each character its own individual movement personality. For example, the nervous White Rabbit (Aleksandar Antonijevic) is all about frantic tics and staccato, unfocused limb thrusts. The seductive Caterpillar with his Magic Mushroom (Jiri Jelinek) has been given sexy, undulating muscle isolations in the Oriental style. The madness of the Mad Hatter (Royal Ballet guest artist Steven McRae) is shown through a frenetic tap dance.

One of the delights of the choreography is Wheeldon’s quotes from ballet masters. The Mad Hatter, March Hare (Jonathan Renna), and Dormouse (Lise-Marie Jourdain) riff into a famous pose from George Balanchine’s Apollo. And then there’s the Queen of Hearts (Greta Hodgkinson) and her laugh-out-loud Rose Adagio steal from The Sleeping Beauty. Wheeldon’s ravishing Waltz of the Flowers is a tribute to Marius Petipa’s The Nutcracker.

Joby Talbot’s original score is simply superb. By turns symphonic and cinematic, the music perfectly matches each episode of Carroll’s wondrous tale. For example, the White Rabbit’s leitmotif is other-worldly eerie. The terrifying Queen of Hearts gets the cut and thrust of a killer tango, while the tea party is sheer cacophony. Conductor David Briskin and his players prove their mettle with the complex orchestration.

Multiaward winning designer Bob Crowley’s sets, costumes and props are absolutely stunning and full of surprises (such as a door that moves on its own). From Oxford’s Gothic architecture, to the sweet sampler of the Duchess’s house, to the geometric maze of the Queen of Heart’s garden, every scene change evokes Carroll’s imaginative landscape to perfection.

The details in the costumes are gorgeous. For example, the tutus on the female dancers in the deck of cards are all shaped like the suits – hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs. The mysterious caterpillar and his bevy of sirens are straight out of a Persian miniature, while the little prickly hedgehogs (croquet balls) generate huge guffaws of laughter.

The innovative projections of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, a mix of stills and animation, are breathtaking. Alice’s trip down the Rabbit Hole, and her shrinking and growing are excellent examples of projected magic. Gilding the lily is Toby Olié’s puppetry design. The handheld flamingo croquet mallets are hilarious, while the various parts of the Cheshire Cat, manned by about 10 dancers, are a visual delight. Natasha Katz’s lighting is a marvel of atmospheric precision.

Mark my words. This magnificently conceived Alice is going to become a ballet classic.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Jun. 12, with another run Jun. 23 to 25.

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