Alice in Wonderland is not just a favourite book for me, but a favourite theme; for puppet shows, for costume parties, for clothing. It’s like Christmas fairy dust for me: sprinkle some on to whatever you’re doing, and with luck the sparkle will stick. I can’t avoid the call of the Alice any more than some people can wrestle down the attraction of the Olympics or events involving royalty. And thus, in a world in which I love ballet but my hometown team keeps tossing overly-lengthy, spirit-deadening tragedies (Manon, Mayerling) or treacley kiddy fluff (Beatrix Potter, Cinderella) at me, it was with a supernova of excitement I read that the end of winter was going to feature a Royal Ballet, NEW production of Alice. Yippie ki-yi-yay! Top notch dancers, a fat budget, brand-spanking new choreography (always something to be happy about) … my hopes were high!
As usual, I avoided all media coverage before my designated night (including the Ballet Bag girls’ stint as guest Tweeters for the Royal Opera House, although I knew it was happening), so I had no idea that the music was by Joby Talbot, creator of the amazing music that accompanied Wayne MacGregor’s Chroma, or that Simon Russell Beale was apparently doing a Dame (not the red queen thank goodness), but I did know that Chris Wheeldon, founder of Morphoses, was handling the choreography (which Twitter scuttlebutt declared an “audition” of some sort). I didn’t recall being particularly impressed by his choreography on previous outings, but … hey, Alice!
I’m not going to pussyfoot around with a lot of “this is good” and “this is bad” but just get to the meat of it: the first 70 minutes is pants, but the second “half” (50 or so minutes) spanks it six ways to Sunday, so much that it almost seems like two entirely different shows welded together by an intermission. Had, perhaps, Wheeldon spent a year working on “Alice goes to the Queen’s garden” section and completely neglected the rest of the show? The first half managed a fair amount of faith to the text, but the growing/shrinking bit played horribly (too much reliance on projections), the pre-rabbit hold set-up was dull, and Ibi and I were unable to find much in the way of dance for the entire act. Yes, a story was told, yes, there were some great costumes, but, ahem, BALLET. Please to give us the dancing and not just at the very end for the flower dance (which was actually kind of dull).
However, teases of hope were sparked by the delightful handling of the Cheshire cat (proving to me that stage magic is much better created through cardboard and imagination rather than technology) and the brilliant Mad Hatter’s tea party. Fessing up, it was Steve McRae’s tap-dancing hatter that stole the entire first act through the clicking of his hypnotic, metallic toes; I didn’t see what it had to do with the story, but suddenly we had an electric moment on stage and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It was truly novel and a moment of choreographic genius; and McRae may now be the ideal of the Hatter in my eyes (even though his costume stole a bit too much from Mr. Depps incarnation).
Act Two will forever in my mind be the Dance of the Red Queen (Zenaida Yanowsky), or possibly the Red Queen pas de cinq. The brilliance of this bit is that she is being partnered by four terrified playing cards who are expecting every minute that they are going to be executed. They are afraid not to hold her hand or lift her or turn her, but at the same time they are also clearly revolted by doing so. I’ve never seen such a broadly comic dance like this; it wasn’t coarse like the ugly stepsisters are in Cinderella, but again by upturning the expectations of sweetness (a la the Rose Adagio), it made for some genuine laughs. Whatever else happens to this ballet, this scene alone is a work of genius that I hope I’ll have the opportunity to see again.
As for the rest of the ballet, well, dancing flamingos cute, hedgehog croquet fun, all of the characters chasing each other around the queen’s court dull, Beale wasted, ending returning us to modern times bizarre, Alice’s romance (with the Knave of Hearts, Sergei Polunin) absolutely not in the original and too much of a change for me to accept. Maybe if her duets with the Knave had been more exciting I would have felt differently, but as it is it seems like the romance was introduced to allow for the dances, and they were, well, forgettable. As was almost all of Alice’s dancing. And this is a shame, because Lauren Cuthbertson is no clod-hopping pig herder (stage roles aside), but she, like the production, never had much opportunity to show off her brilliant moves. Still, the second act was SO very much better we about forgave the first. Trust me Mr. Wheeldon; you must let the story take care of itself, as the secret to successful adaptations is to make a work of art that is good in the medium in which it is presented, not to be utterly faithful to the original.. Go back to it, cut and redesign, put Alice in blue and let her dance brilliantly in a shorter first act, and suddenly this ballet will become something we’ll all be cheering for.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011. The final performance of Alice will be Tuesday, Marcy 15th.)