Saturday, May 8, 2021

Simple Joys: Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli in the Royal Opera House's 2017 production of  Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo: Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

One could spend years looking at all the dramatic adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense masterpiece Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. His tale of a girl who’s either too big or too small, who tries to follow the rules even as they keep changing without reason or purpose, seems pretty much like childhood as I remember it (any kid who’s stood under an amusement park attraction’s height-limit sign only to be told they’re too short to ride knows exactly how Alice feels), so it’s no wonder this 150-year-old tale has remained a favorite of children and adults, and why it’s been retold in so many different renderings. Many also include elements of Carroll’s equally well-known sequel Through the Looking Glass, even though the only characters the two books have in common are Alice and her cat Dinah. Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land have separate denizens and different rules and guiding principles, as much as nonsense can be said to have such things. A deck of cards rules Wonderland while the game of chess and the mirror-inspired idea of oppositeness permeate Looking-Glass Land, but adaptors across the globe have felt free to mix and match elements from both. Some of these variations are abject failures; I would include the 1951 Disney cartoon, with its flat, unimaginative look and dull protagonist – Disney’s inadequacy at portraying young girls and women is one trend that’s lasted – and the 1933 Paramount Studios version, which features everyone who ever set foot on the lot and surprisingly ugly sets and costumes. Others are weird successes of a kind: the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer’s creepy and fascinating Alice from 1988; Tim Burton’s overblown 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which nevertheless has a distinctive look and very good performances from Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Crispin Glover. A surprisingly funny 1949 British movie with Carol Marsh as Alice and stop-motion puppets designed by Lou Bunin was suppressed for years in the U.S. by Disney, unsurprisingly. There have also been a number of television dramatizations, including a 1983 Great Performances broadcast that features a lovely performance by Richard Burton as the White Knight and a horrendous one by his daughter Kate as a bitter and sarcastic Alice, and a rather inert 1955 production with Elsa Lanchester and Eva Le Gallienne as the Red and White Queens. But I’ve never seen an adaptation that fully captures and expands upon the realms Carroll created. Until now. 

Given how important words and language are to the story, it’s obvious why Alice hasn’t previously considered as material for a full-length ballet. It seems daft even to consider it. You’d need a choreographer of genius and vision, who’d have to be supported by designers and costumers of comparable talent, providing almost inconceivable theatrical effects. Enter the brilliant Christopher Wheeldon, former resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet and current artistic associate of the Royal Ballet in London. At the San Francisco Ballet, I’ve seen several stunning shorter pieces of his as well his splendid full-length Cinderella, and he directed the stage adaptation of An American in Paris and a recent Brigadoon in New York with Kelli O’Hara and Patrick Smith, bringing ballet as a primary dance form back to Broadway. But even so, how could the lexical folderol of Alice be staged as a ballet? A 2017 Royal Opera House performance, available on the streaming channels Marquee TV and BroadwayHD, shows how.

Wheeldon and his scenarist Nicholas Wright are surprisingly faithful to the original. This is most assuredly Wonderland: there is no blurring of borders with Through the Looking Glass. Almost every character and episode in the story is present in the ballet. (The Mock Turtle and the Gryphon are noticeable omissions.) But Wright and Wheeldon make two changes that make all the difference.

The first is a borrowing from the film of The Wizard of Oz. Rather than the book’s opening of Alice being read to by her sister on a sunny summer day, Wheeldon and Wright stage a birthday party for Alice and the guests all show up in Wonderland as versions of themselves. Friend of the family Lewis Carroll becomes the White Rabbit. A flamboyant magician transforms into the Mad Hatter. Alice’s overbearing mother reigns as the Queen of Hearts. And the one I particularly loved: a visiting Rajah metamorphoses into the Caterpillar. (The 1949 British film attempted something similar, with a too long and overcomplicated prologue, but because the connections to the Wonderland characters were merely vocal, the concept seemed half-hearted and not fully thought out.)

The company of the Royal Ballet in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo: Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

The second change is to provide a romance for Alice (the lovely Lauren Cuthbertson, a spectacular dancer and actress), who’s now a teenager rather than the book’s seven-year-old child. Just prior to Alice’s party, Jack (Federico Bonelli, who looks like every girl’s dream swain), a young gardener on the estate, presents her with a rose. When Alice steals one of the tarts meant for the party’s guests and gives it to Jack, her mother mistakenly believes he’s the thief, summarily dismissing him from the family’s employ. Jack then reappears in Wonderland as the Knave of Hearts, pursuing his romance with Alice and pursued by the Queen of Hearts for his theft of tarts. This brilliant addition accomplishes two things: it provides dramatic shape to the piece, which most adaptations lack (as, more forgivably, does the book itself), and it allows Wheeldon the opportunity for glorious pas de deux between Alice and her Knave.

After the banishment, Carroll (the skillful and energetic James Hay) comforts Alice by taking her picture. The camera’s flash brings Alice into another world. As the party continues in slow motion, Carroll sprouts a fluffy white tail, opens his bag of equipment, and jumps in. Alice follows, and we’re on our way to Wonderland.

No matter how good the scenario might be, it’s all for naught if you can’t create a Wonderland that astonishes and delights. Wheeldon and his co-creators use projections (beautifully created by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington); spectacular puppets, including a miniature Alice who falls slowly down the rabbit hole and a giant Cheshire Cat whose body and limbs disassemble and reunite at will; scenery, set pieces, and costumes by the wizardly Bob Crowley, whose look alternately evokes Victorian stage design, contemporary graphics, and a fairy-tale beauty all their own, employing not only the red, black, and white of playing card suits but lavender, raspberry, lemon, silver, teal, and flamingo pink as well. Natasha Katz supplies luminous lighting effects. Wheeldon and his team awe and amaze.

The book is almost all here: Alice having to swim in her own tears along with a menagerie of talking animals; the insane Duchess (Gary Avis in a drag role) and Cook (Kristin McNally), who run riot in their swinish abattoir of a kitchen, neglecting their ugly baby, who succumbs to the influences of its surroundings and turns into a pig; the tea party with a tap-dancing Mad Hatter (the marvelous Steven McRae) alongside the sleepy Dormouse (Romany Pajdak), and the comical March Hare (Paul Kay). As the Queen of Hearts, the magnificent Laura Morera rolls about encased in a candy-apple red construction that looks a cross between one of Marie Antoinette’s farthingale-bolstered gowns and a Christian LaCroix perfume bottle, dispensing her reign of terror, perfectly conveying both fury and lunacy as she seeks the thief who stole her tarts. The Caterpillar on his mushroom calls to mind the fantasy sequences in Alfonso Cuaron’s 1995 film of A Little Princess, a dream vision of Indian costume and dance. Fernando Montaño’s be-turbaned and bare-chested Caterpillar both leaps and inches across the floor, while four attendants alternately tend to him and transform into the Caterpillar’s elongated body.

When Alice first pokes her head through a tiny door, the theater comes alive with flowers dancing in the aisles and petals fluttering down over the audience. It’s a scene of unbelievable extravagance and it lasts less than a minute. Later, when Alice is in the garden proper, there’s a waltz of flowers: the male dancers in white frock coats with hems dipped in pastel for an ombre effect that matches their partners’ tutus, Alice in her lilac frock dancing with abandon among them. I could go on cataloging the theatrical pleasures to be found in this Alice, but viewers will want to make some discoveries themselves.

Paul Kay as The March Hare and Steven McRae as The Mad Hatter. (Photo: Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

For the music underpinning all the theatrical phantasmagoria, Wheeldon has turned to a composer, Joby Talbot, who rewards both him and us with a score of wide-ranging moods and sounds. Talbot uses clock-like rhythms and percussion to begin the Oxford party scene, with more lyrical refrains for encounters between Jack and Alice. In Wonderland there are lunatic bursts and lilting waltzes. The Queen of Hearts cavorts to a pointillist tango punctuated by comic bursts of sound, and Talbot’s lush orchestrations enhance the romantic interludes between Alice and the Knave of Hearts. (Keon Kessler conducts with aplomb.)

Throughout all of this Wheeldon’s choreography and storytelling are precise and varied. Characters have a vocabulary of movement all their own. Playing cards bend and jut with bold and angular shifts, the White Rabbit shifts and fidgets nervously, and flamingoes step daintily on their toes. At the end of Alice and the Knave’s final dance, their arms join together in the shape of a heart. (Wheeldon may be the best deviser of romantic duets since Balanchine.) This production defies all expectations, an enormous undertaking whose every detail is thought out and considered (aided by Christopher Saunders’s staging), so that the whole thing shimmers enchantingly. I don’t see how it could be better.

In Jennifer Homan’s lively and engrossing 2010 history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, she concludes pessimistically, “After years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel sure that ballet is dying. The occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope, but the last glow of a dying ember . . .” Wheeldon debuted his Alice in 2011. He may be almost singlehandedly reviving the art of ballet, bringing excitement and innovation while still paying homage to the traditions and techniques of its long history.

Carroll ends his Wonderland with an uncharacteristic flight of lyricism: Alice’s sister listens to Alice’s retelling of her adventures, and then sends her off to her tea. As the sister drowses in the late-afternoon sun, she seems to dream of the things Alice has relayed to her. Carroll has her finish her fancies with these words:

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager, with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life and the happy summer days.

Wheeldon and Wright pay homage to Carroll’s final sentiments in their own ending, bringing both Wonderland and ballet up to the modern day. Carroll himself might bow before their achievement.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.




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