First things first: Alice in Wonderland does not, in fact, lend itself to a strong ballet. The well-tread Lewis Carroll story is aimless and bloated, with too many characters and too little character development. It has no romance, no unified plot, and certainly no depth of feeling; all necessary characteristics for a cohesive and impactful ballet.
It is these adaptive impossibilities, however, that ultimately make Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland such a captivating, breathtaking masterpiece.
The ballet begins with Alice as a young teenager at her family’s opulent mid-nineteenth century garden party. The stage is distractingly sparse for this first scene, but it draws attention to the party attendees who, upon closer inspection, are the diegetic reality’s equivalent of each Wonderland character. The infamous Queen of Hearts, for example, first appears as Alice’s tyrannical mother, who fires Alice’s garden-boy beau for accidentally stealing a tart. In a wink to her future persona, she also demands that a red rose be removed from a bouquet of white; an inversion of the Queen of Heart’s abhorrence for white roses.
The party is such a whirlwind of activity that it’s easy to miss many of the details. Dozens of interactions occur at once, and each one hints at Wonderland; Alice and the garden boy court in a whimsical pas de deux; skittish party attendee Lewis Carroll and Alice’s father play a game of croquet; maids excitedly prepare food and gossip about attendees; Alice’s sisters play-act as book characters until their mother foists party dresses upon them; the cook duets with a massive, jiggling jello cake; and a cast of increasingly eccentric guests make their extravagant party entrances.
It is unbelievably and fantastically busy, but the spectacle abruptly ends when Lewis Carroll, suddenly sporting a fluffy bunny tail, takes a photograph and freezes time. The Carroll-cum-White-Rabbit takes Alice’s hand and together they dive into the cook’s towering jello cake.
It is in the subsequent moments, and only these moments, that Wheeldon’s vision falters and the magic is broken. The undeniably difficult-to-stage tumble into Wonderland and the “eat me” and “drink me” scene use projected film to recreate the dimension-bending illusions, but the stage is too sparse and the choreography too simple to truly follow up the garden party. The following caucus race also feels low-budget and haphazard, but it is thankfully kept under a few minutes to make room for Wheeldon’s delightfully manic cross-dressing Duchess, deranged Cook, and the famous Cheshire Cat. From here on, the rest is magic.
Bob Crowley’s wonderfully weird set and costume gags punctuate the madness of Alice while managing to separate it from other, more famous adaptations. His not-quite-campy, not-quite-classic take firmly separates the ballet from its Disney counterpart and the original novel, with a few winks to the original illustrations and the physical book itself.
The third act begins in the slapstick-driven court of cards, where long-suffering gardeners attempt to paint stubborn white flowers the Queen of Hearts’ preferred red. When Xiao Nan Yu’s Queen finally enters, she is triumphantly rolled in by courtiers in a boat-sized red gown, which houses the spineless, squirrely King. She commands the stage, despite the presence of dozens of dancers, and it is a rare and commendable feat. At the pinnacle of the finale, two storeys-high card towers topple to the ground, sending the entire court of cards, hedgehogs, flamingos, guards and Alice into uproar. Crowley’s vision is a resplendent, unapologetic spectacle, and it is what makes Alice so enjoyable.
Wheeldon’s narrative additions also provide welcome freshness and verve to Carroll’s well-worn tale. Under his direction, the potentially one-note characters are given as much depth and personality as this fantastically bloated ballet can manage. The ingenious garden party scene neatly introduces each character and their individual motivations, histories, and even specific tics (like the White Rabbit’s ear-scratching and watch-checking), managing to partially answer the charming Wonderland enigma of “what on earth is going on?” in the following acts. Wheeldon’s Alice is a firmly family-friendly dream, rather than, as one has come to expect from post-modern Alice adaptations, a drug-related hallucination.
Ultimately, and delightfully, a pseudo-twist ending leaves the audience debating Wonderland’s existence, and it also satisfies the dimensional need for baseline reality that Alice often lacks. The surprisingly heartfelt catch-all finale concludes with an expected wink from the White Rabbit-as-Carroll, and, judging by the number of kicks to the back of my seat, the little girl in the red sequinned dress sitting behind me enjoyed herself at least half as much as I did.
Alice runs until March 29 at the Four Seasons Center in Toronto.