Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The Royal Ballet
Covent Garden, London
Monday, February 28th 2011
How hard is it really, to put together a brand new full evening story ballet ? Not hard at all, if you have the right team. The Royal Ballet has been missing pieces of the puzzle for twenty years, but it stops tonight. As a piece of theatrical entertainment, Alice delivers. It’s a great big twirl of a ballet. There are hedgehogs – real and not, brilliant pink flamingos – curiously real and not, a tapping Mad Hatter, a scarily seductive Queen of Hearts, collapsing cards, giant sponge cakes and cupcakes that open ! Lewis Carroll would have marked this evening in his diary as a ‘White Stone Day’ – a day of good fortune. Fortune favours the brave and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has surely been favoured. He has brought together a team who have focused on story-telling in a big way and their task is made so much easier by the superb, perfectly attuned, tic-toc musical smorgasbord by Joby Talbot. Who knew ?
Based on the Victorian children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and written for the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford; Alice Liddell. Carroll’s hobbies were puppetry and sleight of hand. He taught children how to fold paper boats, and we find Alice and The White Rabbit sailing off in a paper boat. He was also a keen photographer at a time when photography was in it’s infancy, and he loved games of all kinds including croquet. Wheeldon has used all of these real-life links in his Alice.
We start in Oxford in 1862 where Henry Liddell & his wife are hosting a garden party at the Deanery. As you can see from the above photograph, it’s a pastoral scene, warmly lit, where Lewis Carroll is entertaining the three Liddell children. These scenes are busy with a lot of entrances and characters to take in at once. Jack, the gardener’s boy (Sergei Polunin) appears and dances with Alice – they are friends – but it’s not long before there’s trouble & he is dismissed by Alice’s mother. Lauren Cuthbertson, as Alice, has a peach of a role but it’s also a huge one. She is constantly dancing & hardly leaves the stage. Tonight she danced like she’s never danced before and I think the look on her face at the end said that she knew it too. She is a natural turner and Wheeldon has made the most of that, but above all she is engaged in the story to such a degree that every scene is fresh, impulsive & real. I don’t think the choreography itself is all that ingenious, nor will it make you say ‘wow!’- the importance seems to have been placed on telling the story.
Wheeldon has ingeniously brought Lewis Carroll, the book’s author, into the story, and most of the dancers double up so that Jack becomes the Knave of Hearts, Lewis Carroll becomes The White Rabbit (by ingenious use of a camera cloth) & Alice’s mother becomes The Queen of Hearts – to devastating effect.
Lewis Carroll is danced by Ed Watson, and by the time The White Rabbit disappears into his camera bag (yes, really), Alice is eager to follow. The use of projections and puppetry helps to recreate the scene where Alice falls through the rabbit hole. Why couldn’t we have had Cuthbertson instead of a puppet, good though it was ?
Finding herself in a corridor of doors presents the technical crew with a series of growing and shrinking scenes – all are done with a great deal of panache while Cuthbertson twirls (when she’s not eating or drinking). Mimicking the scene in the novel where Alice spies a beautiful garden through a small door, we see a teeny tiny door breaking free of the backdrop and whizzing about the stage with Alice trying to get through. And then, flowers burst into the auditorium itself with petals falling from the roof – great bursting puffs of twirling colour. Brilliant ! When the flowers return later, wearing hats & waltzing with Alice and Jack, in their yellow, purple and green flower-inspired tutus with partners in long tail coats dipped in matching colours with flowery lining, it’s another happy scene. The corps de ballet have a lot of work too – dressed as cards with heart or spade shaped tutus and numbers on their heads (there are a lot of numbers throughout – reference perhaps to the fact that Lewis Carroll was a mathemetician ?) Yuhui Choe and Johannes Stepanek were the most in tune with each other and a pleasure to watch.
Once Alice has shrunk and can no longer open the door, she cries and her tears form a lake which she has to swim through. This scene is unusual with many waves and Alice is joined by other animals. To dry themselves off, Alice suggests a Caucus race, which sees Alice trying to line them up with a bright yellow flag that starts off saying ART, then TART, and finally rolls it out fully to say START, at which point pandemonium breaks out because most of them have already left.
Alice spots The White Rabbit again. “Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting” he seems to say as he leads Alice to a country cottage, drawn like a tapestry. There is a lot of fuss because the Queen of Hearts has invited the Duchess (fantabulously danced by Simon Russell Beale) to a croquet party, and her footmen (well, a frog and a fish) arrive with the invitation. Eventually Alice finds herself inside the house, which turns out to be unexpectedly grisly. The kitchen resembles a sausage factory and angry colours and smells abound. Kristen McNally was exceptional as the magnificently demented Cook. Flying around with blackened teeth and a couple of handy meat cleavers she weaves a terrifying thread around Alice and the others.
The appearance of The Cheshire Cat is curious, as you’d expect. I’m not sure it works in all the scenes, but it has the effect of calming the action. Disappearing cats aren’t easy to arrange, and this one is a huge black and white moggy with detachable limbs & torso and a vast tail.
Bursting onto the scene, Steven McRae as the Mad Hatter steals it completely. His tapping is, of course, sublime, and then you take in his outrageous make-up and costume and you just have to smile. And smile.
The tea party is crazy – tea cups line the raised stage and there is a giant Victoria sponge and a couple of opening cupcakes for good measure. Besides the Mad Hatter, who I think is less mad and more just mad for tapping, Alice takes tea with a March Hare (the genius Ricardo Cervera though you wouldn’t know it under all that costuming and make-up) and a sleepy Dormouse (dreamy James Wilkie with quite a tail) who they try to put in a giant teapot several times.
Most curiously of all, Alice finds herself escaping the tea party and runs into a caterpillar. Not just any caterpillar, either. Eric Underwood’s Rajah Caterpillar is spicy, languorous, and fond of mushrooms. As he leaves Alice, the Caterpillar has a trick up his sleeve. Holding aloft a beautifully embellished blue Indian umbrella, his many legs following behind are actually dancers in fabulous, heavenly, sparkly pointe shoes – a very very nice touch. He leaves Alice with a piece of mushroom as a gift, which she nibbles and by doing so she arrives in the beautiful garden she has been searching for since she arrived in Wonderland with such a thump.
As the curtain goes up in Act 11, the vivid slashes of green and red dazzle the eye, and as if that wasn’t enough The Queen of Hearts arrives in her bright red heart-chariot flashing her eyes and pointing her fingers at anyone who dares to look her way. Eventually her chariot opens to reveal the sleeping King at her feet, who she kicks with her pointe shoe.
Her garden is a humorous place though – even the trees will get a curtain call – and while the gardeners busy themselves painting the white roses red, to hilarious effect, The Queen arrives with her guests. Yanowsky has some fun solos, very sharp and witty including a side-splitting skit on the Rose Adage from the Sleeping Beauty that will have you in stitches because Yanowsky towers over her three partners and it’s as much as they can do to keep her upright, until eventually she ends up centre stage, flat on her face, legs akimbo.
The game of croquet is no less spectacular, with dancers dressed as flamingos (one hand becomes the head which they cleverly place on the ground just like the bird) and small spiky hedgehogs are marshalled on stage by the Queen’s henchpeople, much to their horror. While the game continues, with The Duchess faring better than the Queen, Alice is reunited with the Knave. They have a lyrical, wispy pas de deux; some of Wheeldon’s best choreography. Meanwhile the Queen starts to cheat and chaos isn’t far behind.
The Knave ends up in court and further mayhem ensues as every witness (all the characters you’ve been introduced to) blames him for the theft of a tart. The King finally takes charge and asks the Knave to speak for himself, but Alice intervenes when his story makes little impact. Eventually Alice knocks over a witness, and all the cards collapse – they are only playing cards after all !
Suddenly the projection appears again and we are being taken up through the rabbit hole to find Alice on a sunny afternoon, lying on a bench reading a book with Jack by her side. They dance together until Lewis Carroll appears and Alice asks him to take their photograph. She wonders whether she knows him, but she can’t – can she ? So she skips off through the gate with Jack.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is utter nonsense, brilliantly danced by tonight’s cast and led by an indefatigable Lauren Cuthbertson. It’s not hard to see this ballet becoming a classic, nestling among Cinderella and The Nutcracker and enjoyed for years to come.
When we arrived at the Royal Opera House, the driver asked if I was singing or dancing tonight. By the end of Alice, I think I was doing both.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is in repertory at The Royal Opera House until 15th March 2011
A few short clips of Lauren Cuthbertson, Steven McRae and the waltzing flowers including Fernando Montano can be seen on Sky, along with a quick chat with Monica Mason, Lauren, and Christopher Wheeldon.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a ballet in two acts. Act 1 is 70 minutes; Act 11 45 minutes with one 25 minute interval.
There is a gunshot at 32 minutes into Act 1. There are optical illusions throughout which you should be aware, could affect those with epilepsy.
This is a co-production with The National Ballet of Canada.
Puppet concept and design : Toby Olié
Magic consultant : Paul Kieve
Sound design : Autograph
PPD catered by : Company of Cooks Events
Decorations by : Simon J Lycett Ltd