Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Royal Ballet’s first full-length ballet with a new commissioned score in 20 years. The expectations are huge, naturally, but the Royal does not disappoint.
With a narrative-led ballet, it’s never just about the dancing. The music and design play just as vital a part. It is a rare thing for a newly composed piece of classical music to command love on first listen for its perfect evocation of its subject matter, but this is exactly what Jody Talbot’s score does: its rich layers of sound manage to reflect the strangeness of Wonderland.
The various mysterious places that Alice visits during her adventure have been depicted numerous times in popular culture, so it is to the credit of Bob Crowley’s team that every scene still feels new – indeed, part of the fun comes from recognising the well-known set-pieces and assessing how they differ from other screen or stage versions or, indeed, your own particular vision of them. The Duchess’s misleadingly picturesque house is particularly wonderful in this regard. Animation meanwhile is used to spectacularly surreal effect.
But it’s the little details that lift it, aiding the choreography in the telling of Alice’s journey: from her initial fall into the rabbit hole via the use of a puppet to the roses that just won’t turn red, much to the dismay of the Queen of Hearts’ frightened gardeners.
For the company of dancers Alice is clearly a huge undertaking. And the Royal has gone all out – there are no less than five principal dancers in lead roles, not to mention a principle guest artist, as well as the wonderful Simon Russell Beale who, incidentally, seems to be receiving as much press attention for his part as the Duchess as Alice herself, Lauren Cuthbertson. The problem is that, apart from Alice (who is essentially on stage at all times), the episodic nature of the story means that the others do not get that much stage time.
If there is one complaint, it is that far too many things are crammed into Act I; there are some remarkable scenes, but they are so quickly succeeded by others, there is little time to reflect in between, and their impact weakened. Of course, one could argue that the sense of rush and disorientation is true to the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s original. Nevertheless, it is a huge shame that the Mad Hatter’s tea party, featuring a tap-dancing Mad Hatter – played by Steven McRae, himself known for his risky tap dance variation at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition as a teenager – is but a fleeting scene.
The entire production is wrapped up with humour and heart, and Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography plays no small part in that. The obnoxious Alice is given a great feet-stamping, arms-flinging tantrum sequence, but when she’s reunited with Jack (Sergei Polunin, who sadly does not get much opportunity to show off his wonderful technique), the hopscotch-like steps, open arms and unconventional lifts allow her innocence to shine through and you sense the blossoming of young love as they tenderly embrace. When a role is created for someone who is evidently perfect for that part, it shows.
At the other end of the scale, the corps gets some meaty choreography, too. The flowers – who appear in the aisles of the auditorium at one point – perform synchronised swimming-style steps, folding and unfolding out of their formations. Meanwhile, the deck of cards, in glorious tutus shaped like the four suits and with their numbers as head-pieces, has its own rather contemporary section, building up to the climax of the croquet game.
For fans of those short national dances beloved of classical ballet, Eric Underwood (topless as is now compulsory) is the seductive caterpillar in an Indian-inspired sequence. Indeed, it is Wheeldon’s tongue-in-cheek approach to classical conventions that draws the greatest response from the audience, the pièce de résistance of which is undoubtedly the Queen of Hearts’ solo variation, which would be almost identical to the famous Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty were it not for the petrified cavaliers and a generous helping of jam tarts.
Taken as a whole, this is a magical production, one with real power to wow an audience, as evident from the extended standing ovation. It is not difficult to imagine this Alice entering the rep and becoming a new Christmas favourite for all those suffering from Nutcracker fatigue.