On January 26 I cashed in one of the best birthday presents ever: tickets to see The National Ballet of Canada perform their new ballet Alice in Wonderland at the Kennedy Center. We were lucky enough to see it under the splendor of the Opera House ceiling, and even from the second tier (highest seats in the house) the view was incredible. I spend so much time dancing in sub-par, concrete-floored spaces that it’s easy to forget a real theater is built so that every seat has a view. And a sprung floor, suited for dancing. But we all know the privileged status that ballet and opera enjoy in our society, so as I move forward with descriptions of the lavish production we enjoyed, nothing more shall be said on the matter.
The ballet does its best to capture the qualities of the book, and for the most part succeeds through spectacular set design and costuming. The choreography is solid except for one small section, and modern in inspiration. I often have trouble watching “contemporary ballet,” as I find choreographers throw in elements from modern dance vocabulary (like flexed feet) quite inorganically, resulting in a stilted performance of mixed techniques that seems forced. Not so with this ballet. The choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, seamlessly married elements of modern and contemporary vocabulary with a classical ballet foundation. I believe he did this by creating movements and phrases that were character-specific. He allowed the characters to dictate the movement as they came alive through the rehearsal process, not his idea of what the choreography should ultimately look like or worse yet, what “modern” means in ballet language. The result is a ballet that reads as organic, natural, and character-driven.
Interestingly, this is a problem for one critic whose take on the ballet I read shortly before starting my own review. Apparently the ballet was also set on the Royal Ballet of London, which seems odd to me since Canada commissioned it, but what do I know of the world of ballet, where you get paid to choreograph and perform? They must have worked out a deal. In any case, this critic and I agree that the spectacle of the performance is grand. It may even weigh more heavily than the choreography. The difference in our opinion is that I don’t agree it is necessarily a weakness of the ballet, or indicative of underdeveloped characters. I am watching as a modern dancer, after all. I don’t need all the dancers to have a million technical solos that show off their virtuosity but don’t further the plot. I also don’t need the choreographer to invent a story that isn’t there. This is Alice, and he sticks to it, for better or for worse, without adding his own ideas to the mix.
It opens on a garden party where, in the style of The Wizard of Oz, various characters are introduced as guests who later feature in Alice’s dreams. Lewis Carroll is in attendance, telling Alice and her sisters a delightful story. Their mother and father circulate, the mother frighteningly arrogant and the father all too passive. A magician enters with a flash of pyrotechnics, followed by two Vicars that bumble into each other. A Rajah with an attentive harem sensuously take over the lawn. And there is the love interest, a young servant boy called Jack, whom Alice dances with in an innocent, childlike duet. When he gives her a rose, she gifts him a tart from the party, and her mother has the boy thrown out for stealing. Alice, in despair, confides in Carroll, who becomes a white rabbit. He jumps down a jello mold on the table, and Alice follows.
To illustrate Alice’s fall, a video appears on a backdrop, black and white spirals into nothing with letters falling, falling, falling. In a spotlight, a puppet Alice is manipulated, giving the impression that she is falling too. At the end of the hole, dancer Alice appears again, on an empty stage with dozens of doors stacked on a backdrop. A trick utilized throughout the ballet is cutouts in backdrops, and in this one characters rush out of a door, cavort around Alice chaotically, and disappear back through the door. Try as she may she can’t open it. Naturally, the scene continues with “drink me” and “eat me,” allowing the set designer to show off growing and shrinking backdrop projections, ending with Alice climbing into a small cutout of the stage so it appears she has grown immensely. It’s a wonderful conceit and works on the stage, but leaves me with the impression that a smaller stage would serve the ballet better.
Alice cries the ocean and swims away through a cut in the backdrop, and for the first time the back half of the stage is revealed. A beautiful set of a tiered ocean moves across the stage, and Wonderland characters swim through it. In the back layers characters are carried in surprisingly contact improvisation-inspired lifts, further backing the choreographer’s modern sensibilities and credentials. The scene develops into the Dodo race, with Alice as starter. This scene is a lovely bit of choreography that would benefit from repeat watching. As with much of the ballet there are layers upon layers of movement. The result is satisfactorily overwhelming, and again reads much more like a modern dance than a ballet, because no one character is overly featured. The choreography works together as a whole to develop the mood and story. This is also when I looked upstage, and, ocean gone, could see that the floor was the book. Words poured onstage, bits of Carroll’s writing, fading into the main dance floor.
Because this could go on forever, I will skip to my absolute favorite part: the Cheshire Cat. Yes, I love cats, but that is not the reason why I so thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the ballet. It is because it was done so perfectly. The Cat itself is a bunch of separate parts: four legs, three body segments, one head and a long tail. Dancers all in black (heads too) carried the pieces so they appeared to float in air. When Alice dances by, her whish of air throws the cat’s pieces in many directions, after which it spins back together again. Once a whole cat, it stretches and nuzzles just like a real cat would. When she asks for directions, it points its limbs in all directions, whirling them about comically before disappearing one part at a time, finishing with its long tail and over-sized head. I found the ballet a tad bit long, but I could have watched much more of this.
The largest questionable choice of the evening dealt with the Caterpillar character, which came immediately after the Cheshire Cat. Because of the genius of the Cat, I was expecting something similar for the Caterpillar and as such was more disappointed than I otherwise might have been. Instead of a giant Caterpillar extravaganza, there was just one man sitting on the mushroom smoking from a hookah. The dance progressed and a harem emerged, trying their best to belly dance. The semiotics skipped from India to Turkey to China, with bad break dancing elements thrown in for… fun? At the end of the dance the Caterpillar emerged once more, this time with a spectacular caterpillar body, making me wonder why the dance hadn’t started there. After all, in the book the Caterpillar turns into a butterfly, a story arc that would have made a lot more sense for the ballet. I could have done without the faux oriental music and racial insensitivity, of which every ballet seems to need at least one number.
At least the Red Queen dances a fabulous “Off With His Head” solo parody of the Rose Adagio, that makes up for the tragedy of the Caterpillar dance. The original adagio is a feminist wonder of a piece from the arguably feminist Sleeping Beauty, where Aurora tests her potential suitors as partners, determining their weight and worth. The most memorable moment of the dance begins around minute 1:30. She steps into an attitude pose with the aid of a partner. She holds it while each partner changes places, and at the end of the sequence she finishes by herself, not needing a partner at all. Brilliant. In Wonderland, the Queen forces a few lower-level playing cards to dance with her, and at every turn they are sheepish, hesitant, and scared of her violence. The result is a fantastically funny interlude that is genuinely clever and results in some catastrophically bad situations for the Queen. It is the first time I have seen a nationally touring ballet with a section that doesn’t set out to make its headlining dancer look good.
One of my favorite aspects of the ballet is Alice’s development. When the ballet begins, she is little more than a child with a passing fancy on a servant boy. When her mother throws him out of the party, she sobs, but is quickly taken out of her despair when Carroll offers to take her picture. That is the epitome of privilege and being a child. How quickly we forget our troubles! Yet her dream shows that she does feel badly about the event, as Jack is chased through Wonderland by an evil and comedic Red Queen. By the end of her time in Wonderland, Alice and Jack dance the tour-de-force of the ballet, a gorgeous pas de deux that simultaneously pays homage to their origins as childhood friends, recalling movement from the beginning of the ballet, and presses on into adolescence. At its end she is ready to admit her guilt in the affair and rushes to prove Jack’s innocence. The only thing that doesn’t quite make sense: when she wakes at the end of the ballet, she and Jack are college students of today, and there is no garden party or family. Alice is saved from having to actually convince a terrible mother of the boy’s innocence, and a modern Lewis Carroll with a camera sitting on their vacated bench and scratching like the rabbit as the curtain closes does little to ameliorate this sudden and all-too-easy ending.
Even though I have my disagreements with the ballet, on the whole I thought it lovely. I could never hope to discuss all the great moments from the ballet, so indulge me while I list a few more. In the “drink me” scene, a small door is carried onto the stage. Alice peers through it toward the audience, and we see bright lights, hear party music, and confetti falls on the audience. We are the party in Wonderland that she sees, and the fourth wall is broken. Later she gets to that party, and the themes of light, music, and confetti repeat, but now she is in the party and we can all see the dancing: a glorious touch. The Mad Hatter tap dances on a table that is made up as a stage, and it is fantastic. It’s also another moment where I could have done with a smaller venue all around, because when it’s just the Hatter, Alice, the March Hare and the Doormouse, the stage feels awfully empty. I also love the Queen’s giant rolling outfit that opens to reveal the King reading a newspaper. Local students were used to dance as the flamingos and hedgehogs for the croquet party, and they are beyond cute. If this ballet comes to a place near you, I strongly suggest you check it out!