The National Ballet of Canada’s Alice in Wonderland is manic, but magic.

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.

http://national.ballet.ca/Productions/2014-2015-Season/Alice

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The National Ballet of Canada’s Alice in Wonderland is manic, but magic.

Six Reasons Why You Should Already Be Reading Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen

Victoria Aveyard’s debut novel Red Queen splashed into headlines and garnered rave reviews immediately following its February release on the international market. Debuting at number one on the New York Times bestseller list for young adult fiction, its filming rights were immediately snatched up by Universal studios along with its yet-unwritten, but inevitable, sequels.

A young screenwriting graduate, first-time author Aveyard claims to be inspired by her time as a film studio intern tasked with finding well-written and designed novels to option for film rights. Finding none, she decided to try her hand at writing her own, and Red Queen is the satisfying result. It’s a novel deftly shaped by a writer practiced in creating for the big screen, and it’s no coincidence that the novel was immediately optioned by a big studio. A strange-yet-familiar combination of Harlequin romance, summer blockbuster, and every young adult book on the market today, Red Queen is vying to succeed the Divergent series as the next trilogy to capture the hearts of YA lovers everywhere. If that hasn’t sold you, check out the following reasons why you should grab a copy before your friends do.

You’ve read the Hunger Games, Ella Enchanted, and Harry Potter, and loved them all.

Red Queen treads familiar territory – but that’s not to say it’s tired. Aveyard’s curmudgeon heroine, Mare, is an ass-kicking Katniss twin with (early book spoiler alert!) lightning powers, which she uses to blend into the powerful royal Silver clan while aiding and abetting her own subjugated and marginalized Red clan. Aveyard borrows heavily from her YA predecessors, but this familiarity is also its strength; it’s an expedient and electrifying read, crafted to be consumed in a few short hours and leave the reader wanting more.

You crave intrigue

Duelling princes, super-powered gladiators, draconian rulers, political unrest, an underground subway that leads to a (surprise!) not-as-irradiated-as-they-thought abandoned sector … It’s all here. Early advice given to Mare and repeated no fewer than five times throughout the novel is “anybody can betray anybody.” And anybody does. Plot twists arrive semi-frequently and steadily, but unfortunately the few well-placed red herrings don’t quite manage to shake the reader from foreseeing the action-packed climax. The semi-cliffhanger ending is also blatantly optimistically in its wooing of the reader for the next installments, but Red Queen is satisfactory enough to leave the reader both satiated and titillated.

Two words: love triangle

Square? Pentagon? I’ve lost count. But it’s there, and it’s pretty juicy.

You like to get the jump

Red Queen will definitely be a top contender to succeed the similar, massively popular trilogies The Hunger Games and Divergent, and reading it before the first film comes out guarantees that you can smugly tell your friends that the book was better. Don’t want to wait for the movies? Book two is scheduled for release in Summer 2016.

You love your YA heroines

Mare is the ideal YA heroine as a life-alteringly special, and simultaneously entirely ordinary slumdog who happens to be in the right place at the right time. The novel relies heavily on indirect discourse and inner monologues to flesh out characters’ identities and motivations, a tactic that particularly grates me when used in excess, but Red Queen managed to avoid arousing my ire. Mare herself is stubborn, fiercely a-romantic (until, of course, true love blossoms), and loyal to a fault, exactly what a YA heroine should be. The third-person narrative also frequently includes melodramatic inner commentary which recap or reinforce the gravity of her predicaments such as “This morning I was a servant, tonight I’m a princess. How much more will change? What else will I lose?” These occasionally too-angsty teenagerisms mean Red Queen is perfect fodder for the young adult crowd, and Mare’s stubborn strength marred with squishy loyalty is entirely likeable and relatable by design.

You love Game of Thrones

Yes, the twists are that good. That’s all I’m going to say, except for this: not everybody makes it to the epilogue.

Six Reasons Why You Should Already Be Reading Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen