David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; September 14(m), 2014

Colleen Boresta

Jillian Vanstone as Alice in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. Photo © Cylla von Tiedemann

Jillian Vanstone as Alice in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.
Photo © Cylla von Tiedemann

After a nine year absence, The National Ballet of Canada has returned to New York with their lavishly entertaining production of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon to a commissioned score by British composer, Joby Talbot, and with some unbelievably unique sets and costumes by Bob Crowley.

Librettist Nicholas Wright has added a prologue to the piece which shows Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for Alice) and her family at a garden party in Oxford, England circa 1862. Many of the characters at the party eventually fall down the jello mold rabbit hole and become new creatures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll turns into the White Rabbit, while Alice’s parents become the King and Queen of Hearts. Wright has also included a love interest for Alice, the gardener’s son, Jack, who Alice’s mother does not approve of, and who in Wonderland morphs into the Knave of Hearts. Alice undergoes many strange and frightening adventures after she falls into the rabbit hole. At the ballet’s conclusion these turn out to be merely the dreams of a young girl in the modern world who has been reading Lewis Carroll’s classic book.

This “Alice” stands out for astonishing special effects which are a glorious combination of psychedelic video, puppetry and mobile set designs. In Act I there is too much going on to really appreciate it all; the fourteen fragmented scenes flying past at the speed of light. Acts II and III, which concentrate on far fewer events, are much preferable.

My favorite moments from the ballet are those that show a creative and original combination of costumes, sets, choreography and music. Almost worth the cost of admission is seeing how the Cheshire Cat’s body parts come apart and flow back together with splendid suppleness (aided by about eight dancers dressed in black). Even when it is in pieces, it is amazingly lifelike.

Equally impressive is the croquet game, where the corps dancers sport flamingo beaks on their arms for mallets and small children become the hedgehog balls. The costumes and choreography for the pack of cards in Act III are very imaginative. The waltzes for the Act II garden party are reminiscent of those in the ballroom scene from Wheeldon’s “Cinderella”. However, as novel as is his choreography for the ensemble dances in “Alice”, I find his dances for solo performers to be generic and often repetitive. His lifts for Alice and Jack/Knave of Hearts are lovely, but not nearly as soaring and swoon worthy as those for the Prince and Cinderella in his later ballet.

All of the dancers were wonderful. As Alice, Jillian Vanstone was so natural that she became the role. She had real chemistry with Guillaume Côté’s Jack/Knave of Hearts. Côté stood out for his swift turns and leaps with nice elevation. As the Queen of Hearts, Xiao Nan Yu was a master of comic timing. She is especially effective in a riotous parody of the Rose Adagio from “The Sleeping Beauty”. Her four terrified suitors were also very funny.

Robert Stephen’s Mad Hatter impressed with several rollicking tap dance numbers which demonstrate the off the wall nature of this wacky character. Rex Harrington was a drily amusing King of Hearts who keeps reading the newspaper whether he’s sitting inside the Queen of Hearts’ dress mobile or presiding over the trial of the Knave.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” contains numerous delights for both adults and children. I hope it becomes a ballet standard like “Cinderella” or “Coppélia”.