On Monday evening we were excited to be at the Royal Opera House for the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s new full-length ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s been hugely hyped in the national press, of course, and, especially since it’s such a difficult story to stage, I think everyone was wondering if it would live up to its press. As far as I am concerned, it did. Though some critics have suggested the first act is too long, at 70 minutes, it seemed to me to be sufficiently pacy for the length not to matter.
The ballet opens with a garden party in Oxford in 1862. The events of the garden party are carefully reflected in the narrative structure of the rest of the ballet, and the character of Lewis Carroll, who is a guest at the party, turns into a white rabbit, who takes Alice down the rabbit hole. Many of the effects – Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Alice shrinking and growing – are achieved with the use of projection onto a screen, which works very well. The Cheshire Cat is created from a number of dancers holding pieces which come together to form a whole cat, but can also then dematerialise. Combined with Joby Talbot’s atmospheric score, it’s amazingly effective but also unsentimental and humorous. Lauren Cuthbertson’s Alice is perfectly unself-conscious and childlike in some moments, but, when the story calls for it, more adult and knowing than the usual Alice, which fits the narrative of the ballet perfectly.
The second act – shorter, at 45 minutes – contains some brilliant moments, particularly the Queen of Hearts (Zenaida Yanowsky) in a pastiche of the Rose Adagio played to great comic effect with reluctant minions and a waiting executioner; and the game of croquet with the Duchess (Simon Russell Beale) in which the hedgehogs are danced by members of the Royal Ballet School, and the flamingoes have wonderful costumes and perfectly flamingo-like movements. The Queen and the tap-dancing Mad Hatter (Steven McRae) certainly got the biggest cheers from the audience at the end. The sets are numerous and complex, but they work extremely well.
This is the kind of ballet that is likely to become a classic – like favourites such as The Nutcracker, it contains many character parts (even a bit of Bollywood ballet!) and a wide range of animals too. In its themes, in the music, the characters and the choreography, it ranges from the lyrical to the humorous, the semi-tragic to the child-like. It also moves from the nineteenth century at the beginning into the present day right at the end. In many ways it seemed to me to be a very traditional ballet, though in its special effects it is quite modern; but it is bound to have a wide appeal, which is no doubt the intention.
You can watch a trailer for Alice here.