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The National Ballet of Canada

April 10, 2015

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Reviewed April 9, 2015

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Repeat performances through to April 12, 8 p.m.)

20110604NBC_Alice_DressRehearsal

Photograph by Bruce Zinger

Ottawa has waited a long time to see The National Ballet’s lavish and monumental three-act ballet of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, created by the acclaimed British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, since it first debuted in early 2011. Opening night in the Capital brought a packed audience to its feet, which is no surprise as it’s a highly creative, colorful, action-packed piece of work.

And what’s not to like about the 150-year-old story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a timeless tale beloved by children and adults alike for, well, a very long time. Don’t think this ballet is only for the wee ones – in fact, very young children would likely find it difficult to sit through the nearly three-hour ballet, even though the beautiful and fascinating characters are enchanting and enticing.

Wheeldon has taken some creative license with the story, which only adds to the magical mystique of it, as he weaves the characters of the opening scene set in the garden of the Christ Church Deanery, home of Henry Liddell (whose daughter Alice inspired the original nonsense tale), into the characters of wonderland.

This careful rendering of the storyline ties the dance work together nicely. For example, the gardener’s boy Jack (yes, we have a new story here), danced by the dashing and charismatic Naoya Ebe on opening night, cleverly becomes the Knave of Hearts, creating a coming-of-age romantic story within the story, which is nothing but delightful. Alice’s fuss-pot attention-seeking mother (Greta Hodgkinson) morphs into an irritable larger-than-life Queen of Hearts. Lewis Carroll (yes, he’s a character in this story, performed by Skylar Campbell Thursday night) becomes, of course, the White Rabbit. And so on, with many of the other characters we meet at the 19th–century sepia-toned summer garden party transforming into wonderland creatures. All the elements are there from the very beginning: the roses, the jam tarts, the tea cups, the croquet game. It’s hard to take it all in.

A phantasmagoria of extravagant sets and costumes come at you fast and furious like an exotic mind-boggling marketplace. Drops interchange with cinematic projection, a stage appears within a stage for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene, and optical illusions of growing or shrinking doors and rooms filling with tears follow Alice’s drinking this or tasting that. Black and white line drawings give us the essence of the original storybook.

Sonia Rodriguez performs Alice April 10 and April 12 matinee, Photograph by Bruce Zinger

Sonia Rodriguez performs Alice April 10 and April 12 matinee, Photograph by Bruce Zinger

Scene after scene transports us into a wonderland without end. There’s an enormous Cheshire Cat, “driven” by several black-clad dancers, that hovers and floats and pulls itself apart and back together again, always grinning but never helpful.

The playing cards — some buffoons incompetently trying to please the Queen and others delicate black-lipped ballerinas with tutus of spades or clubs around their waists — make up a significant portion of the cast.

A dance of “flowers” splashes the stage with a picturesque array of pastel-colored finery, the ballerinas in colourful frills and the men in white tailcoats. A footman fish and a footman frog, with large googly eyes on their heads, flit through the storyline. And then there’s the smoking caterpillar on the mushroom vignette – featuring the exotic Rajah from the garden party as the enigmatic insect in a scene drenched in shades of royal blue and indigo. There are ballerinas dressed as flamingoes and tiny dance school dancers as adorable little hedgehogs for the famous croquet scene.

It’s almost impossible to see everything that is happening on the stage, but it’s an infinitely satisfying work of art.

The original score, written by English composer Joby Talbot and performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, is magical and mysterious.

Beyond the exhilarating wizardry of it all, the dancers are superbly energetic and theatrical. On Thursday, Jillian Vanstone is a curious, innocent Alice who dares to step beyond the bounds. Her flirtation with Jack the gardener’s son/the Knave of Hearts is charming and enchanting. Always graceful, Vanstone and Ebe are a beautiful couple, capturing the beauty and hope of the young imagination amid the nonsensical dream sequences. Their duets become ever more intimate as the ballet progresses.

A surprising touch at the end takes us back to a modern-day Jack and Alice in the same summer garden of the Deanery, with a boom box and an instant camera. It leaves us with a feeling that love is eternal.

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From → Ballet

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