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The Royal Ballet // Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland // Royal Opera House, Covent Garden // London, England // February 28–March 15, 2011 // Reviewed by Barbara Newman
Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice and Sergei Polunin as the Knave of Hearts. Photo by Johan Persson. Courtesy The Royal Ballet.
Nothing appeals to the British ballet audience as much as home-grown talent, cherished tales from childhood, and adorable animals. So no one was surprised that Christopher Wheeldon’s new Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sold out its seven performances before opening night.
A thoroughly British affair, the two-act fantasy features an original scenario that fits the familiar characters around a gentle love story, a perky score by Joby Talbot, and extravagent designs by Bob Crowley. It is Wheeldon’s first full-evening work for the company that trained him and that company’s first new full-evening work since Twyla Tharp’s short-lived Mr. Worldly Wise (1996). Returning proudly to his roots, for his first cast Wheeldon chose Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice, Edward Watson as the White Rabbit, and Stephen McRae as the Mad Hatter, three principals straight from the Royal Ballet School.
Surprisingly, the choreography fails to keep up with the musical and visual invention the underlying story inspired. Talbot’s ambitious score scurries and skitters alongside the White Rabbit, blooms into a lyrical waltz of gorgeous flowers, and bellows bombastically at the Queen of Hearts’ hysterical command. The vivid costumes and decor, combined with dizzying projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, carry the action easily from scene to scene, defining each encounter more clearly than the dances. The Cheshire Cat floats past Alice in segments that coalesce and dissolve mysteriously. The Caterpiller trails a high-stepping chorus line of sparkling pointe shoes, and a marionette, helplessly suspended in space, tumbles down the projected rabbit hole.
Often his greatest strength, in this case Wheeldon’s choreographic fluency has run away with his common sense, imposing confusion on episodes already bustling with mimed activity. Alice dances a thoughtful solo before the projected words “Who are you?” and shares two tender duets with Jack, who is also the Knave of Hearts. The imperious Queen of Hearts and four quaking courtiers mock the Rose Adagio to riotous effect, and the Mad Hatter chatters in bursts of tap dancing. But more often the steps pour across the stage—poor Alice seldom leaves it—without advancing the action or illuminating the characters’ intentions.
Pouncing on the chance to show their skill if not their personality, the dancers wear themselves to a frazzle, jumping, spinning, lifting, changing direction, beating, running on and off. But they can neither force the sequences to cohere nor pare the excess away so we can discern each number’s purpose. Unable to follow the narrative without reading my program, I stopped trying and simply admired the polished performances, the startlingly imaginative design, and the episodic shenanigans that evidently delighted most of the audience.
This elaborate, costly production would be right at home in the West End, London’s equivalent of Broadway, where scenic effects now take precedence over story, dancing, and everything else.