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Emerging Arts Critics Programme

A Flash Into the Rabbit Hole

The National Ballet of Canada offers a romantic take on Carroll’s classic By Brannavy Jeyasundaram
  • Skylar Campbell in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Photo by Karolina Kuras
  • Jillian Vanstone in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Photo by Bruce Zinger

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is as delightful as it is cruel. It’s a free fall into the twisted beauty of a young girl’s subconscious, revealing sinister characters blissfully unaware of their collective animalism. Its wicked imagination spans centuries with numerous adaptations across literature, film and television.

The National Ballet of Canada welcomed Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on March 7 against the promise of spring. In this version Alice is mature and compelled by love, offering intention to her journey. Throughout the narrative arc, Alice undergoes a coming of age. The result is kinder, albeit at times, frustratingly subdued.

The ballet begins with the deceptive stillness of a summer afternoon. Alice, fervently danced by Jillian Vanstone, is perched on a bench surrounded by her sisters anticipating their parents’ lavish garden party. Interestingly, Carroll (Skylar Campbell) himself appears as a character in the ballet, entertaining the girls with magic tricks. The decision to incorporate Carroll within the narrative is significant, neatly embedding a sly awareness of pending chaos and eventual resolution.

However, the most interesting choice by the librettist, Nicholas Wright, is the characterization of Jack (Francesco Gabriele Frola) the gardener, or rather Alice’s love interest. He enters the scene holding a basket of white roses plus a single, anomalous red rose. When he sheepishly offers it to Alice, she returns his gesture with a stolen tart. For a moment, their exchange is delicate. They perform a fluttery pas de deux, with gentle glances and soft lifts.

This harmony is ruptured when Jack is accused of tart theft and immediately exiled by Alice’s mother. At the same time, the stage grows frenetic with arriving guests. Amongst the flurry, Carrol attempts to comfort Alice by taking her photograph. It is the flash that swallows their reality. Carrol is transformed into a rabbit and leaps into a jelly mould. Naturally, Alice follows.

Her fraught entry into Wonderland stays true to the text with the intelligent use of projections designed by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington. A panel of wooden doors shift in size depending on her consumption of cake or potion, effectively capturing her torture. While steeped in emotion, the scene lacks movement. When Alice leaps to reach for the suddenly giant door handle, her frustration does not choreographically translate. In fact, amongst the overwhelming set design, props and costumes of Act 1, there is a noticeable absence of dance.

That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of choreographic brilliance. One such being the raucous cannibalism of the cottage. Alice enters to find blood-streaked walls and slaughtered pigs hanging from the ceiling. In a fiery fit, the Duchess (Piotr Stanczyk) and the Cook (Jenna Savella) engage in an electric duel sequence, where butcher knives substitute as hands, and ladles serve as shields. Their movement is stark and deliberate, rarely pausing as they both fearlessly swing at each other in a meticulous calculation. All the while, their overlooking child spontaneously transforms into a pig, an incarnation of the brutality. It is this glorious malice that effectively realizes the distinct horror of the book.

Act 2 begins with the magnetic movement of the Cheshire Cat. Wheeldon decidedly abandons the high-tech maneuvers of Act 1 to progress the narrative with varying movement styles. For instance, the disappearing limbs of the Cheshire Cat are successfully achieved with puppeteers, offering an intimate dynamism and spellbinding largeness. Similarly, the frenetic chaos of the Mad Hatter (Donald Thom) is conquered through an arresting tap sequence; he flits from table to chair to the floor and then table again, his hat falling and landing perfectly on his foot. The use of tap, an impeccably timed dance style, to illustrate the tea party (a foray into the absurdity of linear time) is a witty and memorable choice by Wheeldon.

Alice’s tumultuous journey resolves itself in Act 3, with a wonderfully comedic performance by the Queen of Hearts (Greta Hodgkinson). In grand expressiveness and exaggerated elegance, she commands the stage with a parody of the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty. Her limbs annunciate each transition, as if connecting the dots between movements. And when she struggles to turn in arabesque, the audience responds with loud laughter.

The remainder of this final act falls flat, however, with a croquet game that goes on for too long and overly crowded staging. At the courtroom, despite weakening mayhem, sensory overload from moments before brings fatigue. Consequently, Alice and the Knave’s final pas de deux intended to convince us of their overpowering love instead wafts over our heads. It is an unfortunate effect considering the sincerity at this moment. When Alice finally wakes up, she and the Knave (or gardener) rest on the park bench in plain clothes. We are projected into a future reality, where their love thrives, offering resolution originally denied by Caroll.

While the ballet brings an overarching narrative structure focused on challenged romance and triumphant love, the menacing hauntedness of Carroll’s text is disappointingly lacking. There are plenty of breathtaking moments, however, with elaborate design and costuming by Bob Crowley, as well as a perfectly executed score by Joby Talbot. Talbot’s atmospheric composition strategically provides delicate accompaniment and appropriate mystique without ever stealing from the production. Collectively, we are left dazzled, but to our dismay, not afraid.

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