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The story wanders, but 'Wonderland' looks wonderful

A scene from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's "Wonderland"


  • The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
  • At Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg on Wednesday

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has long been a lure for choreographers. It may be a children's classic, but there are enough adult elements in the story to intrigue any dancesmith.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's new production of Wonderland, however, is both ambitious and flawed - the work is a technical triumph, but it falters in content. Montreal-based choreographer Shawn Hounsell has approached Alice from two sides. On one, the book's favourite characters are given their rightful place on the stage, which provides both whimsy and humour. (There are also a couple of surprise cameo appearances.)

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On the darker side, Hounsell has made Alice (Jacelyn Lobay) an older woman who is looking back through the rabbit hole at her dreamlike journey. That fantasy allows her to escape the mundane, but at the end of a second visit comes the reality check: Alice, and humankind in general, cannot escape into fantasy forever.

Hounsell's problem is that, while he has fashioned Carroll's famous characters with some skill, he has not really been able to portray the more serious parts of his vision. There is rather a disjointed quality to the choreography, and the voiceover text, while helpful, does not completely fill in the gaps.

Alice's serious reflective moments, crucial to his interpretation, seem attached to the fantasy like interlopers. As well, in an effort to give the RWB dancers some meaty choreography, both on point and off, these showy moments seem to halt the action rather than carry the story along. They appear in isolation as dance for dance's sake.

For example, a group of seven dancers called the Tooney Loons, who seem to be amorphous denizens of Wonderland, perform a few ensemble numbers that seem unrelated to the rest. The Gryphon and Mock Turtle, portrayed inexplicably by three people (Jo-Ann Sundermeier, Amar Dhaliwal and Dmitri Dovgoselets) execute a series of duets, trios and, finally, a quartet with Alice that are pure classical ballet. Attractive yes; meaningful no.

Hounsell is on surer ground with some of the well-known characters. The always wonderful Yosuke Mino is a wired, neurotic White Rabbit whose movements are a blend of both animal imagery and Bay St. corporate businessman. He is the through line as Alice's guide. Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Tristan Dobrowney and Thiago Dos Santos) are given cute mirror-image movements.

Beloved ballerina Tara Birtwhistle, looking like a 1980s Lady Gaga with platinum hair, bright red bell bottoms and an Elizabethan collar, is a harridan of a Queen of Hearts. Using her megaphone, she shouts a stream of insults and orders, and of course her trademark "Off with their heads!" In my favourite line, she chastises the orchestra for playing too many notes.

If the story is a bit obscure, the optics are simply wonderful. Guillaume Lord's set is made up of sliding and flying panels that are used for Jimmy Lakotos's remarkable video projections, a compendium of human and abstract figures. Whether the gorgeous sylvan forest that begins the piece, or the lush gardens of the second act, the various backdrops present a startling parade.

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Signs flash instructions. For example, a picture of a medicinal bottle and the words "Drink Me" result in the image of a rapidly shrinking Alice. It really is quite breathtaking how her body just dissolves downward. Kudos also to lighting designer Hugh Conacher, who brings clarity to the dance. Anne Armit's costumes, a vivid array of beachwear gone wild, are a real treat. Not so great, however, are the applause signs to cue the audience.

For his music, Hounsell has used selections from the works of Canadian composers John Estacio and Brian Current, both modernist and atmospheric. The music, however, is a tad too evocative over time, and it is a relief when the 19th-century waltzes of Josef Strauss kick in for the Queen of Heart's scene to give some needed oompah-pah. The Winnipeg Symphony is ably conducted by Tadeusz Biernacki.

Hounsell makes the company look good, and his creative team has made the stage look good. Even if the subtext has been pushed under the radar, Wonderland is not without its charms.

Wonderland continues at Winnipeg's Centennial Concert Hall until March 13. The company tours Wonderland to eight western cities, March 16 to April 1, and to Ottawa's National Arts Centre, April 28 to 30.

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