Monday, June 6, 2011

Tumbling for Alice: National Ballet's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Photo by Manuel de los Galanes)

Letter to Lewis Carroll:

Took a tumble down the rabbit hole on Saturday night, courtesy the National Ballet of Canada’s vivid presentation of the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and what a wonderful experience it was. Bumped into the most delightful creatures, a lot of them born of your own imagination – the white rabbit, the nasty queen of hearts, the grinning Cheshire cat, and, of course, Alice, dear sweet Alice, who fell first down the dizzying spiral towards that veritable garden of visual delights punctuating the journey.

Your marvellous book, Alice in Wonderland, was the inspiration behind it all, and who knew such a literary classic would lend itself so delightfully to both a balletic translation and original score? Composer Joby Talbot has created a brilliant, bubbling, boisterous piece of music that readily captures the kaleidoscopic character of your own multi-tone prose-style and verse.

The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, under the inspired baton of music director David Briskin, played it Saturday like your own “Mock Turtle’s Song”, that is, with passion.

But it is choreographer Christopher Wheeldon who has successfully transposed your nonsense verse into movement form. His ballet, almost 2 1/2 hours long with intermission, is filled with heart-shaped arms, arrow-sharp legs, swirling waltzes and off-kilter balances that perfectly mirror, in dance terms, the looping arc of your own fantastical narrative.

Bravo. Bravo. Bravo.

Zenaida Yanowsky Photo by Johan Persson
You may likely already be aware, being English and all, that Wheeldon’s new $2-million work debuted in London at the end of February, performed by the now New York City Ballet-based choreographer’s alma mater, The Royal Ballet, and to mostly strong reviews:

“Looks set to become a classic,” said The Guardian. “Real buzz in the big set pieces,” added The Times.

Quibblers mostly took issue with the choreography failing to move the plot forward, a sentiment shared by The Observer and The Daily Telegraph, the latter saying, “In his first attempt at narrative dance, Wheeldon struggles to give it shape and structure, but for much of its duration it still seems like one damn thing after another.”

But my dear Sir: Would you not agree that your own book is episodic? Is it not a series of loosely connected events that flow one into the other like images in a dream? That, anyway, is my happy recollection from reading you in childhood, a memory enforced by Wheeldon’s own hallucinatory rendering of events as seen on the stage. As such, I defend the choreographer and his librettist Nicholas Wright, for having taken a non-linear approach for this ballet. To my mind, it is but a dormouse’s whisker shy of achieving wonderland, itself.

Augmenting the magic, as it were, was the National Ballet’s faultless performance of the work whose North American debut took place Saturday at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. There, it will continue for most of the month, sponsored in part by the Luminato festival of the arts opening at the end of the week.

First soloist Jillian Vanstone danced your Alice with charm and conviction. It was almost as if she  inspired your creation of the character in the first place, not young Alice Liddell – middle daughter of three belonging to Dean Liddell, former headmaster of Westminster School at Oxford – whom you took on a boat ride in 1862, telling her the tale of the white rabbit who takes a girl with him down an enchanted hole in the ground. Vanstone even looked the part, wearing the same bobbed brunette hair style with hair-band that the real Alice sports in photographs you took of her when, as the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, you tutored her in mathematics.

The lithe and lovely ballerina was on stage from start to finish, appearing first in a purple fairy costume at an al fresco Victorian luncheon unfolding on the grounds of what looks to be the original Oxonian home of the Liddell family, and ending in contemporary clothes, a hardcopy copy of your book in her hands, the catalyst driving her dreams.

Steven McRae (Photo by Johan Persson)
But appearances aside, Vanstone perfectly embodied the ebullient, curious, open-hearted spirit of your first muse. Her dancing was direct and pretense-free: sunny as one of your cloudless English summer days. Every gesture of her rung clear and true to the point that while the character she was playing is not (excuse me, sir, for saying) as deep or nuanced as say, a Gisele or an Odette, well-known ballet heroines, identifying with her was effortless. Where she went you happily followed, vicariously riding the roller-coaster of funhouse experiences that Wheeldon placed in her way in the form of hyper-kinetic, hyper-visual dance. A star was definitely born.

Vanstone was in good company Saturday night. Every dancer in this production appeared to own the roles they were costumed and bewigged to dance, even though those roles weren’t originally created for them.

Stand-outs included Greta Hodgkinson in the dual roles as the maniacal Mother/Queen of Hearts, a performance that marked her as a comedienne of the highest order, first soloist Rebekah Rimsay as the cleaver-wielding Cook, principal dancer Jiri Jelinek as both Raja and Caterpillar, slinky roles both, principal character artist Tomas Schramek as the tattooed Executioner and Zdenek Konvalina as the down-trodden Jack/Knave of Hearts. The Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae that night only danced the role of the tap-dancing Mad Hatter whose eye-popping stare owed as much to you as Tim Burton.

You were in the ballet as well, the Lewis Carroll part danced by principal dancer Aleksandar Antonijevic who played you with gentleness and sympathy. Antonijevic also danced the jittery role of the White Rabbit, displaying a magnificent control of choreography that was both fast and slow, supple and taut, low to the ground and bouncy. Challenging, in other words, to perform, but this seasoned dancer pulled it off like a charm. The troupe as a whole performed the work with such conviction, if not joy, that Alice looks to be a something of a watershed moment for the National.

Zdenek Konvalina and Jillian Vanstone (Photo Sian Richards)

This is a work that not only pushes the boundaries of the company’s own dancing and acting talents, but also looks to be a bona fide box-office hit. Saturday’s debut was greeted with an instantaneous standing ovation. The buzz continued into the foyer at show’s end with delighted audience members exclaiming aloud that they want to see the ballet again.

I could count myself, among them. I thought it was a great accomplishment.

But if I were to make a criticism, it would lie with Wheeldon perhaps thinking he had to follow story-ballet convention in giving his otherwise unconventional work a love focus: his Alice is more mad for the ousted Knave of Hearts than the Hatter is for his sugary crumpets, which isn’t at all a theme in any of your Alice books. Wheeldon’s willful, if not gratuitous, pursuit of a love story enables him to create a series of intimate pas de deux, mainstay of many a full-length ballet, and so it’s an excuse, really, to show what he can do with the form.

Lauren Cuthbertson (Photo by Johan Perrson)
But the pas de deux, employing for the most part the requisite lifts and turns and pretty poses common to other works in the genre, aren’t nearly as original as Bob Crowley’s spectacular set and costume designs, making them, at the end of the day, easy enough to overlook in favour of the ballet’s fast-flowing, hyper-visual concept.

It’s the surprising, surrealist-flavoured imagery that more transfixes – Alice stuck inside a claustrophobic box of a house; a pink flamingo corps de ballet with beaks for hands; a red-flamed sausage-making factory lurking grimly behind a Victorian needle-point pronouncing Home Sweet Home even as atrocities take place on the other side of the embroidered door. Like your own books, there’s a lot of punning going on in the ballet as well, most of it in the form of outrageous parodies of a wide range of dance classics, from The Nutcracker to West Side Story.

My favourite was the hilarious send-up of the “Rose Adagio” from The Sleeping Beauty that the Queen of Hearts performed, Three Stooges-style, with a hapless lot of swains in tights who teeter-tottered her towards her absurdist finale.

“It sounds like uncommon nonsense,” I can almost hear you say, quoting yourself.

But that is the point, is it not?

 Affectionately yours,

An admirer.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

1 comment:

  1. Loved the ballet and love the review.Linda Maybarduk