An eclectic spectacle of technicolor creation
Follow the White Rabbit – and the Royal Ballet – down the rabbit-hole into a weird and whimsical Wonderland of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, composer Joby Talbot, and designer Bob Crowley’s creation. Weaving the classical with the contemporary in his characteristically eclectic style, Wheeldon translates a Wonderland of wordplay and rhyme into one of diverse dance styles and spectacular theatricality that welcomes both the delightful and the disturbing from Lewis Carroll’s timeless tale.
Alice’s adventures follow the same style as Carroll’s story: a series of vignettes filled with curious, colourful characters, but the trial lies in how to thread these varied and vibrant scenes together into three acts with an arc to follow. Wheeldon accomplishes this with the ticking hand of time as a motif, from the White Rabbit’s pocket-watch to Joby Talbot’s percussive, characterful music, and this Wonderland is wound clockwise into a pacey, punchy performance that whirls us through in whistle-stop time, but it wouldn’t work without an Alice to hold our hand. Lauren Cuthbertson, recreating the role created for her, plays Alice free of the traditional ‘twee’, instead a curious teenager whose flat-footed tantrums and lively curiosity perfectly contrast the fluid lines and quick turns of her technical performance.
Wheeldon’s Alices have to master many a move once in Wonderland: from the mad tapping at tea party with the Mad Hatter tailor-made for Steven McRae’s impressive talents, to the nightmarish kitchen pantomime with Gary Avis’s drag-tacular Duchess, to the smooth moves of Fernando Montaño’s smoking Caterpillar. As well as this eclectic selection, Alice also has all the classical storybook-ballet stalwarts, with the pas de deux for Alice and her sweetheart Jack – the ever-supportive and princely Federico Bonelli – playful echoes of each other across the acts, and the moment when their port de bras make a heart is as sweet as the jam in the tarts he’s on trial for stealing. The world of Wonderland has roles for a roster of the Royal’s principals, with McRae’s Hatter, Laura Morera’s unhinged Queen of Hearts and James Hay’s jittery, well-jumped, rose-tinted-spectacles-wearing White Rabbit particularly impressive, as well as some stand-out soloists, with frog-footman David Yudes’ leaps positively soaring and the pointed precision of a trio of tense gardeners’ petit allegro truly striking.
The staging is as witty and wonderful as the novel’s words, interwoven with innovative allusions to the book and to the wider world of ballet: the ballet closes with a contemporary Alice waking from reading Carroll’s book, the dreamlike Cheshire Cat is a puppet composed of pieces decorated with John Tenniel’s original drawings, and Wheeldon lampoons many a-moment from the classical ballet canon with Apollo-esque penchés at the tea-party and a riotous caricature of the rose adage with tarts in place of roses. Wheeldon and dramaturg Nicholas Wright also draw on Alice‘s playful illogic and Carroll’s inspiration, as the story is structurally framed by a parallel world that seems to span over a century from curtain-up to the close, where Carroll himself doubles as the White Rabbit, sprouting a tail from underneath his tailcoat, and many other Wonderland characters find telling, real-world counterparts, too.
Bob Crowley’s complex sets mix moving set-pieces with projection and puppetry to tell the story quickly and cleverly, particularly impressive as Alice eats and drinks her way to various sizes, culminating with her, growing ever-larger, looking through a door into the auditorium to see the magical garden waltzing in the aisles, and his costumes are clever, technicolor creations, especially the card-shaped tutus for the corps of playing cards. The Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a balletic performance brimming with theatrical prowess, but Wheeldon still demands a technical precision from dancers across the company in this twenty-first century, wonderfully whimsical take on a classical storybook ballet.