The Royal Ballet's 2011 reimagining of Lewis Carroll's beloved Alice stories was a glorious triumph, as proved by its immediate, slightly reworked revival for the 2012 season. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot combine contemporary freshness with affectionate nods to the traditions of their respective crafts and together with playwright Nicholas Wright and the Royal Opera House's production team, they have created a gorgeously lush Alice, whose shimmering music, set wizardry and sheer exuberance will no doubt delight audiences for many seasons to come.
Wheeldon is clear that he wanted to keep Wonderland magical rather than psychoanalytic and so the focus is firmly on the joys of storytelling, with many of Carroll's weirdest and most wonderful characters gleefully realised on stage (making the Mad Hatter a frenetic tap dancer, played by Steven McRae, was a stroke of genius). Nevertheless the ballet does take Alice's growing up as its narrative arc, and her increasing confidence and maturity is beautifully conveyed by Lauren Cuthbertson in the title role. I would have liked to see perhaps a touch more edginess in her psychological journey, as she challenged the class and sexual restraints of her Victorian childhood, but having her wake up from her dream in contemporary Oxford, minus the repressive family and with her handsome Jack, was a nice way of figuring the emotional truth of her mental experience. Wheeldon chose well to make Cuthbertson his Alice, whose gorgeously fluent dancing keeps her Alice youthful and innocent, but never gauche. Cuthbertson's interactions with Ed Watson as the White Rabbit and Federico Bonelli as Jack/the Knave of Hearts give the episodic narrative coherence, and all three dancers maintain an unforced lightness, which is capable of becoming moving intensity when required. The villains are as evil as they need to be – the Cook with her cleaver and her kitchen full of pig meat is deliciously disturbing, while Laura Morera's Queen of Hearts is mesmerisingly mad, all staring eyes, rictus grin and dangerous caprice.
Designer Bob Crowley's sets and costumes eschew the spikiness of Tenniel's well-known illustrations, choosing instead a modernised brand of Victoriana, with bright clear colours and clean lines. The effect is stunning: my only (slight) reservation is that the characters' essential grotesqueness is sometimes undermined by the elegance of their surroundings. The courtroom of cards is a case in a point; the Duchess's gruesome kitchen an honourable exception. Film and light projections are used sparingly but effectively to convey Alice's disconcerting fall down the rabbit hole, her changes of size and the pool of tears, but the mechanical effects are the real triumph. The Cheshire cat's giant floating head and tail and the roses which magically switched from red to white caused particular glee in the audience, although all three acts elicited near-constant exclamations of delight as sets and set-pieces changed rapidly and ingeniously.
The first act is rather fragmented – deliberately so – as Alice searches Wonderland for the Knave of Hearts in scenes that call more on Cuthbertson's ever-engaging acting than on her dancing. In the second act Wheeldon gives us a sinuous Caterpillar, a tender pas-de-deux with Cuthbertson and Bonelli, and a joyful Flower Waltz, whose colourful costumes and ostentatiously waved legs recall can-can dancers against a tastefully kitsch backdrop of Victorian scraps. The sly choreographic and musical homages in the last act were a delight: in her garden the Queen of Hearts dances a parody of – what else? - Petipa's Rose Adagio, to music that constantly threatens to tip into Tchaikovsky; later, in a dangerous mood, she channels Kitri from Don Quixote, over a score which can barely keep Bizet's Carmen down. The climactic pas-de-deux between Cuthbertson and Bonelli has moments of Kenneth MacMillan's Manon and Des Grieux about it, although never reaching quite the same level of erotic abandon, while the adorably leggy flamingos in short pink tunics recall George Balanchine's distinctive aesthetic for the New York City Ballet. This is not at all to imply that Wheeldon's choreography is merely derivative: although his own voice is perhaps not yet entirely clear, he brings many distinctive motifs to the stage. One of the most striking involves inversion – many characters occasionally have their heads on the ground and their legs in the air, while a repeated lift of Cuthbertson's Alice turns her full circle, head over heels, reminding us (as if we could forget) that things in her new world are rather upside down.
It is impossible not to be drawn in by this production's energetic pursuit of wonder, humour and beauty, and the audience, this reviewer included, was completely enchanted by its evening in the Royal Ballet's Wonderland. May it be revived again, and often!
Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland arrived on the stage in 2011 with a burst of colour, theatrical magic and inventive choreography. It was The Royal Ballet’s first full-length work since 1995 and was instantly acclaimed as a classic. Joby Talbot’s score combines sweeping melodies, which gesture to ballet scores of the 19th century, with contemporary effects. Bob Crowley’s wildly imaginative sets and costumes draw on puppetry, projections and masks to bring Wonderland to life. Alice encounters a cast of extraordinary characters down the rabbit hole: from the highly-strung Queen of Hearts, who performs a hilarious rendition of the famous Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty; to dancing playing cards; a sinuous caterpillar and a tap-dancing Mad Hatter. There is a love narrative for Alice and the Knave of Hearts, and they dance a tender pas de deux at the close of Act II. But the ballet does not avoid the darker undercurrents of Lewis Carroll’s story – a nightmarish kitchen, an eerily disembodied Cheshire Cat
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Duration: 2 Hours 50 Minutes
Laura Morera as the Queen of Hearts © ROH / Johan Persson