Saturday, March 16, 2024

Down the Rabbit Hole with the National Ballet of Canada

Tirion Law and Svetlana Lunkina Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada's presentation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland transcends mere entertainment, offering an unbridled exploration of creativity, imagination, and the human experience. Christopher Wheeldon's shape-shifting choreography, inspired by Lewis Carroll's timeless tale, serves as a poignant reflection on the power of storytelling and the journey of self-discovery. A mesmerizing use of computer-generated imagery, eye-popping colour and actual dancing in the aisles allow for a fully immersive experience, accessible to all.

At the heart of the current production — at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre through March 17 — lies Tirion Law's translucent portrayal of Alice, a character whose quest for identity and meaning in a topsy-turvy world resonates deeply with audiences. Supported by a stellar cast, including Svetlana Lunkina as the comically villainous Queen of Hearts, and Donald Thom as the twitchy White Rabbit, Law delivers a wholly engaging performance that invites viewers in to contemplate themes of curiosity, courage, and transformation, as Alice navigates Wonderland’s fantastical landscapes.

On stage for nearly all of the three-act ballet’s 160 minutes, the Hong Kong-born second soloist (making her debut in the titular role) maintains the energy needed to make Alice both enchanting and believable. Law possesses a charming charisma on top of a strong and malleable technique that carries her through sustained solos and intricate pas de deux danced with Naoya Ebe in the part of Jack/The Knave of Hearts, the teenage Alice’s love interest.

Yes, you read that right. Love interest. In this balletic reinterpretation of the original 1865 book (first presented in 2011 as a joint production of England’s The Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada), the British-born Wheeldon takes liberties with his literary inspiration, transforming pre-pubescent Alice into an adolescent with raging hormones and a mind of her own. He plays up the subversive elements in Lewis’s text, inventively remaking classical dance into new shapes and theatrical sensations. Doing so enables him to capture the essence of Carroll's narrative with his own distinctive style and sensibility. Each dance sequence becomes a metaphorical journey, inviting viewers to explore the complexities of the human psyche and the interconnectedness of the world around us.

Donald Thom and Tirion Law in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Despite being ostensibly a ballet for children, it oozes dark matter as well as themes of loneliness, lost love and the escape promised by psychotropic drugs. As Alice intrepidly imbibes, inhales, and nibbles her way down the rabbit hole, life becomes curiouser and curiouser, indeed. Her despotic mother from the opening act’s Victorian garden picnic scenes (Lunkina again) morphs figuratively into the rampaging murderous Duchess character (a deliciously demonic Josh Hall) seen later in the blood-splattered “Home Sweet Home” section, exposing an undercurrent of menace in the not-so-idyllic world of domestic relationships. In another Wonderland episode, Alice befriends a menagerie of exotic animals who are willing to accept her into their ranks until she inadvertently scares them off with the firing of a starter pistol, underscoring the fragility of the human connection to nature. But there is hope, the least being the enigmatic Cheshire Cat and the undulating hookah-smoking Caterpillar (Peng-Fei Jiang), who expose new vistas in the quest for meaning.

Alice’s mind expands in the balance.

Her henpecked father of the first act is reimagined in the Wonderland sequences as the ultimately assertive King of Hearts who saves the day when he orders a stay on the execution of the Knave ordered by his ridiculously overbearing wife, paving the way for the triumph of love. Rex Harrington, the company’s former star principal dancer who now serves as its rehearsal director and principal coach, plays both roles with comedic flair and sassiness. Flipping the script has its rewards.

The biggest mind-bender? The ballet’s spectacular visual presentation. Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington's digital projections, Toby OliĆ©'s audacious puppetry, and Bob Crowley’s eccentric set and costume designs push the boundaries of stagecraft. Life-sized paper boats, a pink flamingo corps de ballet with beaks for hands, insolent trees spouting white roses instead of requisite red and dancers costumed as a deck of cards create a surreal backdrop for a ballet where nothing is real.

Equally captivating is Joby Talbot's original score, which infuses depth, wit, and emotion into the overall performance. His dynamic composition, once described as a "moving toy shop," brims with lively tones and unexpected percussion, echoing the kaleidoscopic nature of Carroll's prose. Under the baton of conductor David Briskin, the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra invigorates the blend of symphonic and cinematic elements, elevating Alice to a dazzling spectacle of music and dance, and ensuring its future status as a centrepiece in the National Ballet’s repertoire. 

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer. In 2023, she published her latest book, Fashioning The Beatles: The Looks That Shook The World


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