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

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; September 9, 13(m), 2014

Jerry Hochman

A measure of the success of any ballet, and particularly of a ‘story’ ballet, is whether an audience simply watches the story unfold through the activity on stage, or becomes a part of it. Without being engaged emotionally, intellectually, and/or kinetically, no matter how earnest and clever the production is, the ballet risks being something magnificent to see, and perhaps to appreciate, but not to cherish. The National Ballet of Canada’s production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, which had its New York premiere on Tuesday, is earnest and clever – and magnificent; well worth seeing for the sets, staging and costumes alone. But it’s all spectacle and, until its final moments, is a ballet to appreciate rather than cherish.

I saw the ballet a second time Saturday afternoon, when an unexplained cast change repeated the opening night’s two leads. Although greater familiarity with the extraordinary production elements necessarily reduces their overwhelming impact, thereby making the relationship between the choreography and the special effects appear more balanced, this second view largely reinforced my initial reaction to the ballet as a whole.

Mr. Wheeldon long ago cemented his qualifications as a choreographer who can paint a story clearly and convincingly, whether the dance is a minimal-looking (“The Nightingale and The Rose”, an extraordinary ‘little’ dance that he created for the New York City Ballet) or extravagant (“Cinderella”, a co-production with Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet); atmospheric retro (“Estancia”, again for NYCB); atmospheric revisionist (“Swan Lake” for Pennsylvania Ballet); or atmospheric contemporary (“VIII” for American Ballet Theatre); or even when there’s no specific story (“DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse”). Not all of these ballets are successful, and Mr. Wheeldon doesn’t show the intense cerebral quality that infuses the works of his co-‘best-choreographer-of-the-early-21st Century-so far’, Alexei Ratmansky, but he never fails to impress and entertain his audience with the quality and enthusiastic sincerity of his vision. Here, however, with some glorious exceptions, his choreography (much like that for his “Cinderella”) is uneven.

Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” would seem to be a perfect vehicle for a ballet. The book has been beloved by generations of adults as well as children essentially since it was first published. And it has a relatively clear, albeit bizarre, story line that may have been original in its time, but is not particularly exceptional for contemporary audiences, and consequently is relatively easily accessible. The story of a girl who is transported into a shadow universe in another time or place where things are off-kilter, weird, or just plain scary, but which also illuminate issues in the ‘real’ world, is as common as a stroll down the yellow brick road, a voyage to the land of the sweets, a journey to the center of the earth, or getting lost in space.  But what makes ‘Alice’ more than science fiction or a children’s book is its sophisticated absurdity, camouflaged wit, and curious mystery.

Dylan Tedaldi as the White Rabbit. Photo © Bruce Zinger

Dylan Tedaldi as the White Rabbit.
Photo © Bruce Zinger

However, where the book combines easily visualized complex absurdity (lavishly abetted by original illustrations) with an intellectual undercurrent, Mr. Wheeldon’s production approaches the story as a visual challenge. He addresses this challenge brilliantly, but, much like the 1951 Disney movie adaptation “Alice in Wonderland,” he largely abandons the intellectual qualities of the original in favor of a more literal visualization. That is, the book’s ‘wonderland’ is an alternative universe, loosely based on the ‘real’ world of Alice and both her and Carroll’s circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances, where movement is crazy and non-stop and relatively incomprehensible. Mr. Wheeldon’s ‘Alice’ is the same. But where the book has an intriguing code that ultimately makes the nonsense cleverly comprehensible, the ballet’s cleverness is largely confined to visual punchlines. That it also goes on too long is not so much an independent criticism as a reflection of that quality of feverishness that rarely stops long enough to allow an audience to reflect, the way a reader can slow the pace of Carroll’s book by simply pausing to marvel, or to think, or to be transported.

I can sympathize with Mr. Wheeldon’s predicament. On the surface, Carroll’s book is relatively non-stop action. Wanting to make the ballet mirror the book as much as possible almost requires the kind of frenetic activity that permeates the ballet. But Mr. Wheeldon appears to have recognized that crafting a ballet requires a somewhat different focus, and that making the ballet more than a carbon copy of the book requires taking some liberties with the ballet’s libretto. And he does.

The most significant of these is that Alice is no longer a girl of around 10 years, but a teenage girl with a crush on Jack, described in the program notes as “the gardener’s boy.” This is an essential modification that permits the choreography not only to regurgitate the story, but to expand it to explore a girl’s emotional coming of age. But Mr. Wheeldon fails to capitalize on this, burying this plot expansion amid a tornado of hyperactivity, brilliant gimmickry, and an inordinate number of cross-cultural and cross-ballet references – from “Cinderella” and “The Sleeping Beauty” to “Sweeney Todd”, Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert”, “La Bayadère”, “The Nutcracker” (both the Balanchine and Ratmansky versions) and “The Wizard of Oz” (which reportedly was inspired by Carroll’s book).

Alice (here, Sonia Rodriguez) and the Cheshire Cat in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.  Photo © Bruce Zinger

Alice (here, Sonia Rodriguez) and the Cheshire Cat in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.
Photo © Bruce Zinger

There are some aspects of the piece that are so good they’re thrilling (or, stated another way, the ballet successfully gets curiouser and curiouser). The sets and costumes by Bob Crowley and Nicholas Wright, augmented by lighting design by Natasha Katz, are spot on, from the Oxford garden party outfits and extraordinarily detailed manse, to the house of cards throne, to the tutus on the Wonderland dancers, to the magically conceived and executed incorporeal shape-shifting Cheshire Cat. The Cheshire Cat is to Mr. Wheeldon’s ‘Alice’ what ‘the Tree’ is to his “Cinderella”.

The multi-media projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, including Alice’s flight down the rabbit hole (perhaps a bit too remindful of Dorothy’s propulsion to Oz) and her physical size changes, are presented with extravagant vitality and excitement. And when Alice finally peeks through a keyhole to see the theater’s audience, with dancers streaming down the aisles and confetti falling from the theater’s sky, and realizes she’s not in Kansas, er, Oxford anymore, the intelligence and creativity reflected in this vision prompts cheers. There’s even a brief nod to Carroll’s wordplay when a prop unveils a banner that at first reveals letters spelling ‘art’, and then is unfurled further to spell ‘tart’, and then again to spell ‘start’.

But then there’s the choreography. There are flashes of brilliance: the tap dances by the Mad Hatter (portrayed by Robert Stephan, who also plays a Drosselmeyer-like magician in the opening scene), though seemingly senseless, are a perfect counterpoint to the general stage chaos, including the frenzy of Alice (beautifully acted and energetically executed by Jillian Vanstone) and her prince-charming-in-training Knave of Hearts aka Jack (Guillaume Cote), and the sameness of the movement provided for the White Rabbit (Dylan Tedaldi on the 9th; Piotr Stanczyk at the 13th matinee). The second act ‘garden party’ dance, which I initially thought was repetitive and overly long, I see on second exposure, and with a more centralized and less spatially constricted view of the stage, to be Mr. Wheeldon’s version of the classic story ballet ‘dream scene’ (Alice is transported there after ingesting an hallucinogenic mushroom), and not bad for what it is. And Greta Hodgkinson’s star turn on opening night as the Queen of Hearts almost steals the ballet (although she was equaled, on a smaller scale, by Rex Harrington’s not-quite-emasculated and wickedly deadpan King of Hearts). On Saturday afternoon, the Queen was played nicely but somewhat less extravagantly by Xiao Nan Yu.

But except for Mr. Wheeldon’s multi-faceted send-up of the Queen, her rose fixation, and classic ballet choreography via a hilariously reformatted Rose/Tart Adagio; a welcome Act II puppy love duet between Alice and the Knave that momentarily slows the constant creative adrenaline overload; Alice’s interesting stop-action connection with the March Hare (played by Jonathan Renna) and the intriguing little dance in which she repeatedly penetrates the body of the fragmented Cheshire Cat, the choreography is uninteresting and primarily at one energy level. It does the job of keeping the mood going, but fails to elevate it to the more sublime extent that Mr. Wheeldon has elsewhere demonstrated. It just goes on and on, and the stage looks incessantly busy (part of this overcrowded appearance may reflective the need for a larger ‘opera house’ stage).

Greta Hodgkinson as the Queen of Hearts and Jillian Vanstone as Alice. Photo © Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy The National Ballet of Canada

Greta Hodgkinson as the Queen of Hearts and Jillian Vanstone as Alice.
Photo © Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy The National Ballet of Canada

The second significant modification that Mr. Wheeldon made to the book doesn’t appear until the ballet ends – and it’s annoyingly brilliant. When her dreaming – and the story on stage – concludes, Alice awakens not as who she was in the story or where she was before she fell or jumped or was pushed into the rabbit hole in 1862 Oxford (three years before Carroll’s book was published), but as an older, contemporary, college-age ‘Alice’-surrogate, complete with camera-capable cell phone, who had fallen asleep while reading Carroll’s book on a park bench in some contemporary vision of Oxford. And the visual gimmick that closes this final scene – a delightful cameo of an older professorial-type character (played by the same actor who portrayed the dual-role of Carroll and the White Rabbit) who retrieves the book that this contemporary ‘Alice’ had paused to dream about, begins to read it, and promptly begins to scratch his head much like the White Rabbit he had been in Alice’s dream of the story — is legitimately touching. I loved the signal Mr. Wheeldon is sending that when one reads Carroll’s book, the book draws one in and the reader absorbs the characters on the page. But this ‘it was only a book-inspired dream’ comes out of nowhere, not so much wrapping things up neatly as creating a third alternate universe that presumably was there all the time but the audience didn’t know it. It would have been better, I think, had the ballet begun with the older Alice falling asleep while reading Carroll’s book, and then concluded with this older Alice’s awakening to find that ‘her’ world has much in common with the worlds of Carroll’s Alice.

Regardless, this final moment, when suddenly the audience meshes with the characters on stage, serves only to emphasize the fact that nothing like that sense of emotional transference happened in the ballet’s prior 2½ hours.

Deficiencies and excesses notwithstanding, the production is never dull, and the original music by Joby Talbot (orchestration by Mr. Talbot and Christopher Austin) is the finest new story ballet score I’ve heard in decades. Although I recognized a little Prokofiev here, and a little Stravinsky there (as well as a little sampling of Disney’s “I’m late, I’m late…”), it’s a marvelous composition that is eminently danceable. Some may consider it overly programmatic, or even, shudder, melodic, but I don’t consider music that appropriately reflects and enhances the story (rather than being something on which the story is grafted) to be a detriment. And its execution by perhaps the best ballet orchestra in the world, the New York City Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of NBC’s Music Director and Principal Conductor David Briskin, was top notch.

Despite its uneven choreography, NBC’s production of Mr. Wheeldon’s “Alice Adventures in Wonderland” should be seen. It’s superb theater, and it is a production that will appeal to, and can be appreciated by, children of all ages.  Returning every few years for a spring/summer “Nutcracker”-like residence (and perhaps providing the opportunity for a highbrow campy “Rocky Horror Show” for those so inclined – I saw several audience members in costume), could fill a void and be a bonanza for the company.  And even though it may not be a perfect ballet, it’s great entertainment.