Estonia Opera House, Tallinn
3rd September 2023
Gianluca Schiavoni’s Alice in Wonderland is billed as a “Ballet for young audiences”, with Alice travelling to “…a fairy land… and meeting wondrous characters.” The 5pm Sunday performance saw maybe a third of the house under 12 and at the final curtain, the audience applauded enthusiastically for several minutes.
The ballet has very strong visuals. Designer, Andrea Tocchio, and Projection Designer, Sergio Metalli, have created a magical world and I enjoyed the opening setting in Tallinn Old Town as the two friends venture onstage in a disused theatre. Metalli imagines Alice’s fall to the Wonderland as through an interstellar worm hole with swirling colours and objects. Simona Morresi’s costumes are colourful and enchanting.
Ketlin Oja as Alice holds the work together with a girlish delight, interacting with the various animals and skipping through short variations between meetings. Schiavoni has given her a huge amount of work, especially in the first half and Oja sticks to the task admirably. Antonio Gallo as the White Rabbit vividly expresses humorous exasperation at a rapid pace, with precise steps.
Some of the best sections are short interactions between Alice and the Wonderland characters. Tweedledee and Tweedledum, performed by Leonardo Celegato and Pol Monsech, have a fine time with fast spins and flailing arms, all perfectly synchronised. Christiano Principato plays the Fish Footman, delivering an invitation to the Duchess, with crisply delivered tours en l’air and entrechats. The Duchess’s kitchen also delivers fun, with the baby turning into a pig.
The next two encounters illustrate some of Schiavoni’s deviations from Lewis Carroll’s story. The Mad Hatter’s tea-party again has amusing steps for the three characters, but Alice is readily accepted, whereas in the original she is told abruptly, “No room!” then treated in an off-hand manner. However, the most astonishing change comes with the Caterpillar. In the original, this is a stationary figure, again treating Alice with disdain. Schiavoni provides Jevgeni Grib with an energetic variation featuring oriental overtones and a duet with Alice. Grib displays his usual elegance and power. The first half ends with Alice, after taking three size changing potions, finally attaining the right height to pass through the doorway to the Red Queen’s palace grounds.
After the interval, we meet the Red Queen. I have sometimes thought that bad girls get the best steps and Trinnu Leppik-Upkin is deliciously malevolent in the role, combining fury and frustration with her minions. I also enjoyed her nimble footwork with high kicks and spins in her introductory variation. Her Executioner is always hovering nearby to dispatch those who have displeased her, after the Queen draws her hand viciously across her throat. But rest assured: we see no executions.
Some of the finest choreography comes in the trial of the Jack of Hearts for the grievous crime of cake theft. Joel Calstar-Fisher shows deep anguish as he begs forgiveness from the Queen, but his deft spins and jumps are to no avail. Alice also attempts to convince the Queen, and Oja is convincing in her concern for Jack with an urgent series of jetés and spins in attitude and arabesque. Finally, we have a duet as Alice consoles Jack and their affection flows, illustrated by a series of powerful lifts. As chaos ensues, the Jack of Hearts makes his escape. Then we are back to the wormhole as Alice returns home. Her friend believes the adventures were all a dream, but in a final scene as Alice leaves the stage a host of the Wonderland creatures pop out from the wings.
The effective score, arranged by Alberto Nanetti, included Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian and Nanetti , who has a knack with tunes, some staying in my head long after the performance. I was often smiling during Alice in Wonderland. However, some of the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s work is missing. A core feature of the book is the text and witty play on words, and this presents an almost impossible task for any choreographer to transfer. Further, in the book, Alice is often perturbed and argumentative with the creatures, who are often dismissive to her. In contrast, Schiavoni’s depicts a happy journey for Alice, up to the Jack of Hearts trial.
Overall, the ballet will be a fine experience for many young children. My advice for ballet loving adults and teenagers is to see Alice in Wonderland, enjoying the vivid designs and the often humorous choreography, but put aside attempts to relate it to the original.