WASHINGTON D.C. — “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is a quintessentially British tale, whimsically based on the Victorian world around author Lewis Carroll. But mostly American audiences at Kennedy Center found a marvelously updated, but still quintessentially British ballet, by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon unfold at a breakneck pace this past weekend.
It was a rarity — an enthralling new full-length ballet — and perhaps the first true action/adventure ballet to hit the stage. There was a lot to swallow, particularly for American audiences not quite as familiar with the story, despite the familiar title.
Mr. Wheeldon has admittedly been enamored with the story since childhood, so he was well aware of the whimsical wordplay and oddball mystery. So he was the perfect choice to take on the challenges of an evening-length production about “Alice,” a co-production of The Royal Ballet and the company that performed it at Kennedy Center, The National Ballet of Canada.
Along with the help of author Nicholas Wright on a wickedly strong scenario, Mr. Wheeldon opted to include the most recognizable elements of the story — The Queen of Hearts, The Mad Hatter, The Caterpillar and The Duchess among a virtually flawless Canadian cast — filtered, not through the expected idea of drug hallucinogens, but an equally fantastical dream-like state. (There is another twist, but you’ll have to see for yourself.)
So this production was extremely family-friendly. Novice ballet goers, both young and old, will be particularly captivated by Bob Crowley’s designs, including a Lewis Carroll photographer who, all of a sudden, sprouted a tail and gradually transformed into the White Rabbit, Alice’s plummet down a giant jelly mold (instead of the rabbit hole), real and animated integration in The Pool of Tears sequence, the puppetry that allowed the Cheshire Cat to appear and disappear…and so much more.
It was a jaw-dropping journey for all.
Veteran ballet goers will enjoy The Queen of Hearts (Greta Hodgkinson) sneering take on the Rose Adagio (of course) from “Sleeping Beauty,” here with four very reluctant attendants instead of ardent suitors. Perhaps inspired by British musical hall traditions (with a dash of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), it went one step further, becoming a woman imitating a man who is imitating a woman…hilarious.
As for the choreography, it lay mostly in the classical vein. But with Mr. Wheeldon’s superb musical sensibility, the flower garden waltz, so voluptuous, spilled over into the audience as women danced down the aisles and petals floated from the ceiling. And Alice (a lovely Jillian Vanstone) and Jack/The Knave of Hearts (an underused Naoya Ebe) had an appealing duet. Speaking of the music, Joby Talbot had the compositional skills to provide an atmospheric, snarky, but mostly magical score that suited every delectable twist and turn.
It all came to a head in a huge finale, with plenty of action that escalated as the house-of-cards courtroom came tumbling down.
Yes, this “Alice” had a bit of everything, my dears. There were snippets of Victoriana — with some original John Tenniel drawings and a floral design with cherubs during the waltz. But then there was a contemporary overlay — a Downton Abbey-setting setting at the onset, a bit of Sweeney Todd in The Duchess’ sausage scene and a little Sgt. Pepper via the psychedelia and the White Rabbit, who wore a pair of colored John Lennon glasses.
And there was tap dancing to boot. Robert Stephen (The Mad Hatter) got the biggest ovation of the evening for his snazzy rhythms.
Occasionally this “Alice” went daringly over the top, becoming a mixmaster of images. But then, what dream isn’t? With so much going on, it only made me curiouser and curiouser to see it again.