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Greta Hodgkinson and Jillian Vanstone in the monumental piece of dance art Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Aleksandar Antonijevic

Title
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Genre
Dance
Directed by
Christopher Wheeldon
Company
National Ballet of Canada
Venue
Four Seasons Centre
City
Toronto
Year
2015

As expected, the National Ballet of Canada's production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland earned an immediate standing ovation accompanied by cheers and bravos. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his creative team have given the National a gift that keeps on giving.

For first-timers, Alice is a monumental piece of dance art. The lavish combination of choreography, projections, sets, costumes and original music is a veritable assault on the senses. To further gild the lily, the company dances up a storm. The dancers have never looked better and there is strength in the ranks.

Nonetheless, the ballet debuted in 2011. Thus, the time has come to ask the inevitable question: Does the work sustain itself over repeated viewings?

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It is a macro/micro sort of thing. In the first couple of go-rounds, one is coping with the big picture, and there is certainly a lot of business going on in Alice at any one time. A growing familiarity, however, allows one to focus on the micro. As they say, the devil is in the details.

Take, for example, the mind-boggling first scene. A garden party is being held at the Deanery of Christ Church Oxford where young Alice Liddell's father is the Dean. Alice (Jillian Vanstone) and her sisters are being entertained by mathematics lecturer-cum-avid photographer Lewis Carroll (Dylan Tedaldi).

At the same time, an army of servants is bringing in trays of food, guests are arriving, and hostess Mrs. Liddell (Greta Hodgkinson) is having a series of crises. The Dean (Rex Harrington) even fits in a game of croquet. It is a whirlwind of activity, and impossible to take in all at once.

This first scene, however, is important because many of the family members, guests and servants will become characters in Wonderland. A closer inspection reveals that Wheeldon has provided clues as to who they will be. Beneath the hurly-burly, he has not forgotten the micro, so to speak.

Mrs. Liddell is a shrew. First, she is furious that the gardener's boy Jack (Naoya Ebe) has mixed in a red rose with the white. Jack gives the red rose to his friend Alice, and in return, Alice purloins a jam tart for him. Mother Liddell dismisses Jack for stealing food.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Liddell becomes the imperiously cruel and bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts. Similarly, the henpecked Dean is the timid King of Hearts, Lewis Carroll is the fussy and hyperactive White Rabbit, while the romantic Jack is the Knave of Hearts who steals the tarts. Every Wonderland character sets his or her future personality at the garden party.

Thus, one of the strengths of Alice is that Wheeldon never loses sight of his many characters. There are no inconsistencies, and he has created a wealth of choreography that supports his personas. For example, the exotic party guest, the Rajah (Harrison James), makes for an equally exotic Caterpillar in Wonderland who dispenses magic mushrooms.

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Not every scene holds up to the first flush of delight. The Mad Hatter (Robert Stephen) in tap shoes is inspired, but in truth, a closer examination of the choreography for Alice, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare (Jonathan Renna) and the Dormouse (Tiffany Mosher) is not at the same level of interest as, let's say, the Queen of Hearts and her chaotic royal court.

Each viewing of Alice brings Joby Talbot's remarkable score into greater relief. At times, the music hugs the action in cinematic fashion, for example, the recurring theme of mystery, or the lush romanticism for Alice and Jack's glorious pas de deux. Talbot, however, can also deliver a delirious large-scale waltz for the ensemble of flowers and their swains. In fact, each of the various episodes has its own clever signature theme.

In short, Alice is not just a ballet of spectacle. Wheeldon's choreographic vision holds up under close scrutiny, and one of the great delights in repeated viewings will be finding the riches waiting to be revealed.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland continues at the Four Seasons Centre until March 29.

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