Wheeldon’s Beguiling "Alice" Comes to the U.S.

January 20, 2013

Although it premiered at The Royal Ballet almost two years ago, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland just came to the Kennedy Center last week. This big puzzle of a ballet is performed by the co-commissioning company, National Ballet of Canada. There’s plenty of time to see it after today’s inauguration, up until January 27.

Joby Talbot’s enchanting music and Bob Crowley’s charming, sometimes funny costumes and stage designs set a tone of delightful giddiness. The Cheshire Cat, with its gradually appearing and disappearing body parts (owing to a Chinese dragon effect with handlers in black) was good, hallucinogenic fun. After all, Lewis Carroll’s whole story is a kind of head trip.

Heather Ogden (second-cast) carried the two-hour-forty-minute production with unflagging good cheer. She gleefully enters each new adventure with curiosity and playfulness. Best of all, she has a sweetness and vulnerability that make you want to root for her.

I loved the word play in the projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Harrington, and the scenes with playing cards. In one section the dancers bend over to show the shape of their tutus—just as they did in Wheeldon’s Evenfall for NYCB in 2006. But here, the shapes are hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs.

Stephanie Hutchison as the Queen of Hearts was hilarious. Her spoof of the Rose Adagio was broad enough to elicit belly laughs even from those who never saw Sleeping Beauty. At the very end, I got another whiff of Sleeping Beauty: After Alice falls up out of the deep hole, back to life on earth, the clothing and equipment have changed. Now the Lewis Carroll figure snaps a photo of Alice with an iPhone instead of that old contraption where the photographer hides under a black drape. Could her dream have lasted 100 years?

I’m not the first to point out that the actual choreography takes a back seat to the visual elements. This is not surprising considering that Wheeldon’s past story ballets have not consistently sparkled with the intriguing choreography of his abstract ballets. It’s been true with his An American in Paris, Estancia, and VIII. He can manage a major narrative, and this Alice proves it, but his real gift is the pure dance-and-music relationship as in After the Rain, Continuum, Polyphonia, Within the Golden Hour, and countless other ballets that reward multiple viewings. I would like to see this Alice again, but more for the puzzle pieces than the choreography. Yes, there’s a really nice pas de deux at the end for Alice and her love interest, Jack/The Knave of Hearts, but it’s pretty thin up to that point, relying on the spectacular visual effects.

If you want to read more, see Barbara Newman’s review of the London premiere. Our Dance Matters of June 2011 explains why this was a co-production between The Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada. And if you don’t get to see it at the Kennedy Center, check out our “Plugged In,” on the Alice DVD that just came out.