I don’t normally expect much from an LA audience, but found myself thoroughly impressed with the excitement surging through the seats of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this past Friday night. There were gasps, abundant laughter, and little shrieks of delight coming from the audience as we watched the US premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s new Alice in Wonderland ballet with the National Ballet of Canada. Audience members of all ages were totally engaged with the dancing, the incredible sets, and the story— just the recognition of characters and situations struck a childlike chord— and they seemed entertained for the full 3 hour show. I imagine watching the premiere performance of Peter Pan in 1904 couldn’t have been much different, as there was a surge of support, enjoyment, and engagement with the characters that must be attributed not only to ingenious story telling, but also to Lewis Carroll’s brilliantly clever characters themselves. Even after all these years, the story of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland continues to enchant people. Wheeldon made strong creative choices to emphasize this timeless quality of the story in his production.
The scale of production is awesome, especially for a ballet. The sets and costumes are simply exquisite, constructed with an acute attention to detail and humor: tutus shaped like hearts, diamonds, and clubs complete with sparkly numbered headbands. I would have loved to see dozens of the sets, costumes, and props, which were all imaginatively designed by Broadway veteran designer Bob Crowley, up close. In particular, a sailboat made from over-sized pages of the book, a giant “Home Sweet Home” sampler that served as the misleading exterior of the Duchess’ blood filled butchery, and the caterpillar’s body, which snaked across the stage with the help of a dozen ballerinas in bejeweled pointe shoes.
The elaborate sets changed again and again with seamless perfection. Projections to simulate falling down the rabbit hole, and puppetry for Alice and the Cheshire Cat were cleverly choreographed, making for a full sensory experience that felt refreshingly new and charming. The word that stands out to describe the ballet is spectacle, but it’s actually deserving of more than just that. It’s inspirational and adds a new level of audience engagement that is valuable for the survival of the classical story ballet form.
The ballet actually breaks down several of the typical story ballet conventions. For starters, one sequence breaks through the fourth wall, with ballerinas waltzing up and down the aisles of the house to help convey Alice’s perspective. Additionally, there is no classic structure of pas de deux, variations, coda, corps piece and so on. That structure is foregone completely in favor of seamlessly integrated story telling. So in some ways, there is a lack of flashy technical dancing that die-hard traditionalists may miss. No 32 fouettes for Alice or killer ménage for her love interest Jack the Knave of Hearts. However, the traditional style is actually humorously referenced in the 3rd act as the Queen of Hearts performs a hilarious rendition of the Rose Adagio, with her four cavaliers terrified and begrudgingly offering their hands to partner her. Greta Hodgkinson played the comedy of her crazy head-cutting-compulsive character perfectly, leaving the audience in stitches with her expressions and comedic timing.
Friday’s performance, on the whole, was expertly danced, with just a few minor slips and issues that all seemed to stem from the unfamiliarity of the stage. The role of Alice was beautifully danced by NBC principal Sonia Rodriguez and her gentle, understated grace, along with her perfectly played youthful demeanor was delightful. She was funny and silly when needed, but never allowed her character to become too annoying or childish as she interacted with all the wacky characters Wonderland threw at her. She carries the ballet, with a bit of help from the Knave, danced with exuberance by Guillame Cote and the endearingly sweet White Rabbit characterized wonderfully by Aleksandar Antonijevic. Right away Rodriguez had the audience rooting for her. Probably the most amazing aspect was the sheer endurance she showed, as she spent pretty much the entire show on stage. It was a marathon of bourees and pique turns, yet she never seemed to waiver in her energy or technique.
At the point where Alice is lost and discouraged, Rodriguez performed a flowing solo whilst the words “Who Are You” drifted like smoke onto the scrim behind her. It was teasing the audience along, letting us know she was about to meet up with the caterpillar. This was the only scene in the ballet that didn’t involve the spectacle of sets or props – it was just dancing. It captured the sweet melancholia of adolescence – the tiresome feeling of not knowing who you are. Though this scene broke rather abruptly from the comedy and extravagance of the show, I was extremely pleased that Wheeldon incorporated this crucial theme of the story into the production.
Through it all, Joby Talbot’s distinctive music propelled the show along with beautiful themes and variations that were at once classic and modern. Using a range of instruments and sounds such as birds tweeting and sleigh bells, the music played a huge part in depicting characters, emphasizing the comedy and creating the mood of this fantastical world. I can only hope Talbot continues to create full length work for ballets. His experience in composing for films and television seems to have proven his work apt for this ballet orchestration that supports the story and Wheeldon’s choreography. It adds strength in all aspects, but never overshadowing the action.
There are plenty of critics out there who, I fear, will fail to see the subtle elegance and brilliance in Wheeldon’s choreography. He is, without doubt, a dancer’s choreographer. You can see that every move and gesture he creates makes sense to a dancer. It looks like it would feel so good to dance, which I think should give it extra merit. But beyond that, Wheeldon’s choreography was pitch perfect in conveying characters, often fantastical animals, without being too obvious or cliché. The movements of the White Rabbit and the caterpillar stand out as doing this particularly well as does the choice to have a tap dancing Mad Hatter, wonderfully portrayed by Robert Stephen. Additionally, Wheeldon wisely went for full-force comedy particularly in scenes such as the Queen of Heart’s court and the croquet match (which included child hedgehogs and pointe-shoe clad flamingos.) That degree of humor is again, not often used in ballet, but only enhanced the nonsense of Wonderland. Like every other aspect of the production, Wheeldon created a work that was just as fun and accessible as it was creative and original…not as easy as it looks.
What makes Alice exceptional is that it’s a fully realized production. The choreography, the music, the sets and costumes all complement each other. Much time was clearly spent planning it out; collaborating between choreographer, composer and designer to create something that is not only entertaining and marketable, but has the potential to be around for the long haul. It is an audience pleaser, there is no doubt, so comparisons to the Nutcracker are going to be abundant. But is that such a bad thing? Alice in Wonderland has the potential to bring a whole new generation to the ballet while delighting audience members who are both novices to the art form and seasoned aficionados. That’s an amazing accomplishment. It could be a gateway ballet – a catalyst for getting people to pay attention to the art form and hopefully get hooked and come back for more. Ultimately, this production brings in the final and rather crucial ingredient for a successful ballet…an audience.