Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by the Royal Ballet | Purely phantasmagoric

I love the Christmas ballet offerings in London. On top of that, you might remember that I loved the first Christopher Wheeldon ballet I saw (The Winter’s tale and I was blown away). It was time therefore, to catch Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Now, you have to understand. I am a book person. I *love* the humor and the wordplay of Lewis Carroll’s book even though I read it in the original English when I was quite old. How the hell would it translate to ballet was a key question. Well, put Wheeldon together with Joby Talbot (music) and Bob Crowley (designs) and witness the miracle.

Sarah Lamb as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © Johan Persson/ROH 2011
Sarah Lamb as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © Johan Persson/ROH 2011

What will blow you away with Alice is the combination of three things. First of all, the music – Talbot performs little miracles of narrative. Secondly, the choreography – where Wheeldon takes all sorts of dance styles and creates a classical narrative ballet (the shapes and pas de deux are all there) with brilliant upbeat parts. Last, but not least, the design – with Crowley taking you on a visual journey like no other, it does feel as if he was on LSD for some of it.

The comparison that obviously comes to mind is with the Nutcracker. Adventurous and feisty young girl wanting to be at the ball – check. Following her first love into a fantasy world – check. A big baddie – check. A journey of self discovery and wonder – double check. I don’t mention this as a bad thing. I love ballets that transport the audience and offer a little bit of magic, especially for children. I could definitely imagine my 10 year old self watching this and falling in love.

What I do want to stress is that Alice does all of this with *some* help by the White Rabbit but not with him being the Deus Ex Machina that Drosselmeyer is in the Nutcracker – and that strikes me as significant.

There is another difference too. The Nutcracker is a bewildering story on acid that makes no sense whatsoever. Originally I mean, since most companies update the story to help the audience a little bit. Alice, being a lovely book, obviously has a normal storyline.

Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli with artists of The Royal Ballet in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Royal Ballet © ROH/Johan Persson, 2011
Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli with artists of The Royal Ballet in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Royal Ballet © ROH/Johan Persson, 2011

Sarah Lamb was Alice when I watched it and Federico Bonelli was The Knave of Hearts (also, Jack, his real world alter ego). No need to say how I am always very impressed by both of them but something was missing from the chemistry between them. Individually they shone, together… I just could not see it.

Edward Watson as The White Rabbit in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  © Johan Persson/ROH 2011
Edward Watson as The White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © Johan Persson/ROH 2011

Ricardo Cervera was the white rabbit and I don’t think I’ve seen him before in a major role (I won’t know for sure unless I go over all of my old programmes). He was very impressive, to say the least. He has precision of movement and a really cheeky undercurrent – both of which give a lovable quality to the White Rabbit. I’m sorry I missed Edward Watson as the White Rabiit, he has a hint of darkness in his movement which I imagine would have given the role a bit of a sinister undertone.

Steven McRae as the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  © Johan Persson/ROH 2011
Steven McRae as the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © Johan Persson/ROH 2011

I do have to mention Alexander Campbell – even if he was not such a good performer, the Mad Hatter is a fave with the audience. Here is where I found that sinister undertone. Campbell (I suspect) goes against his training by taking on this tap dancing role but he is sinuous and gives to the audience an really crazy but ultimately sad Hatter. I read in the programme that Steven McRae (the original Hatter) is an accomplished tap dancer and the role was choreographed with him, I would have loved to have seen him.

Zenaida Yanowsky as the Red Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © Johan Persson/ROH 2011
Zenaida Yanowsky as the Red Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © Johan Persson/ROH 2011

By far my favourite – and the rest of the audience’s too – was Zenaida Yanowsky as the Red Queen. The homour of the choreography and the music and matched brilliantly by her expressiveness and body movement. She is a force of nature and I would love to see her again. I didn’t expect it but she was also hilarious!

Overall, I loved how the ballet became a coming of age story so brilliantly. Alice is the adventurous girl who travels to a strange place, meets so many surreal characters and saves the Knave. If that isn’t girl power I don’t know what is.

I think this will be a firm favourite for many years to come and if you are looking for a phantasmagoric (I’m not pretentious, this word is used a lot in Greek) production to introduce a young (or even older) friend to ballet, this one is perfect. Do check out the ROH flickr set from the 2011 production if you need more convincing.

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Disclosure: Watched Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland on 10 December 2014 and paid for my ticket. No prior discussion with the venue took place.
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