Christopher Wheeldon is still tinkering. Even though his ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been a huge hit since its premiere in 2011, Wheeldon, it seems, is still looking for the better mousetrap.
Alice is a co-production of the National Ballet of Canada and London’s Royal Ballet. The reviews on both sides of the pond have been gaga, with the work also scoring a major success in Los Angeles on the National’s recent tour. Why would Wheeldon fix something that isn’t broken?
The English choreographer’s biggest change is making Alice into a three-act ballet. Admittedly, the first act had been overlong. As Alice now stands, the division is 47 minutes, 29 minutes, 47 minutes. And the new format does work well.
The new break falls between the “Pig and Pepper” scene and the “Mad Tea-Party.” The former is so chaotic with the Duchess’s sausage-making, her surly cook, and her pig baby, that it is a good place to end the act. Wheeldon has also added in a pretty pas de deux for Alice (Elena Lobsanova) and the escaping Knave of Hearts (Keiichi Hirano), he of the stolen tarts.
Sometimes serendipity can make something better. The Los Angeles Music Centre did not have a convenient trap door for the rabbit hole. In the original scenario, the White Rabbit (Dylan Tedaldi) and Alice entered the rabbit hole through Lewis Carroll’s camera bag. For Los Angeles, Wheeldon changed the rabbit hole entrance to a jelly mould on the dining table, and liking that effect better, camera bag is out, jelly mould is in (although the synopsis still says camera bag).
Alice is a ballet that is still revealing its riches despite multiple viewings. For example, I just picked up this time round that the sleeves of Alice’s little girl Victorian party dress come off in the tilted room/Pool of Tears (presumably to create a more comfortable dance outfit).
And then there is the dense opening garden party held at Alice’s father’s Deanery in Oxford. There is a lot going on given the interaction between the Liddell family, their servants and guests. If you are looking at one side of the stage, you miss something on the other.
As most characters are playing dual roles, you have to lock into the relationships, such as Jack, the disgraced gardener’s boy, morphing later into the Knave of Hearts. Parsing this scene is still a fun-filled challenge.
Still, much to admire is how Wheeldon has coped with the episodic nature of Carroll’s classic story, thanks to his ingenious creative team and composer Joby Talbot’s ravishing score. Each vignette stands on its own.
I do, however, have a suggestion that I think would be very helpful for the audience. British dramatist Nicholas Wright did the scenario and his verbose synopsis is the ballet’s guide. Much better would be a scene-by-scene breakdown (title and brief description), rather than Wright’s complicated storytelling.
The main idea behind multiple viewings is to see different casts. Saturday afternoon featured some young Turks, as it were, and they certainly showed depth in the ranks.
First soloist Lobsanova is both lyrical and technical as Alice, a genuine rising star. Her portrayal, however, is a bit on the bland side. She still needs to find the sparkle. Corps de ballet member Tedaldi has been getting more and more significant parts, and with good reason. His Lewis Carroll/White Rabbit dances up a storm. Both dancers made their role debuts at this performance.
Among the more veteran company members is the always wonderful principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu (Mother/Queen of Hearts). She is imperious and hilarious at the same time.
First soloist Hirano is becoming more prince-like with each new outing. Second soloist Christopher Stalzer (Magician/Mad Hatter) and first soloist Brett van Sickle (Rajah/Caterpillar) also gave fine performances.
Special to The Globe and Mail