Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, February 2011Posted on 1 March 2011
When the performers came on at the end, even the trees took a bow. It was that sort of evening, when the whole cast did a superb job, and the audience loved them all. And why not indeed? This was the world premiere of a brand new full-length ballet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to specially commissioned music by Joby Talbot, and the audience roared their approval.
Lewis Carroll’s original story is a wonderfully unusual and creative tale, hard to put on stage as a ballet because it’s impossible to reproduce Carroll’s clever word play. But this ballet matched its creativity, and the music matched the choreography. The scenario by Nicholas Wright was very effective, the lighting design by Natasha Katz was magical, and the video projections were glorious. I loved the fluttering leaves towards the end, and the tumble down the rabbit hole early in Act I gave me a sudden sense of vertigo.
But what of the dancing? Lauren Cuthbertson was a remarkable Alice — how on earth did she keep going in Act I when she’s on stage virtually all the time? Amazing! Sergei Polunin was a star as her beloved Jack, the gardener’s son, and as his alter ego the Knave of Hearts. Steven McRae was fantastic as the Mad Hatter — his tap dancing was brilliant, and I loved his costume in pink and green. In fact the costumes and designs by Bob Crowley were a delight. I liked the nineteenth century outfits at the start, as if we were in A Month in the Country, followed by modern clothes at the end. That might seem odd, since Alice is simply waking from a dream and the costumes should be the same when she awakes, but somehow it worked. And in between — in Wonderland — the costumes were immensely colourful.
So many vignettes from the original story were included, one cannot mention them all, but Simon Russell Beale as the Duchess in the ‘Pig and Pepper’ chapter was a revelation. I had no idea he was so musical. Eric Underwood was a wonderful caterpillar, and Edward Watson was very fine in his two roles, as Lewis Carroll and the White Rabbit. But if one had to pick one performer, apart from Lauren Cuthbertson, it was Zenaida Yanowsky as the Queen of Hearts. She was also the mother in the ‘prologue’, ejecting Alice’s beloved Jack from the garden party because she thought he stole a tart — then in Wonderland she becomes the imperious Queen of Hearts. Her spoof on the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty was worth the whole show, and Yanowsky played it with superb comic timing.
In case it sounds as if I was overwhelmed with appreciation, here are a couple of quibbles. I thought Act I had moments where things didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and the choreography was dull, though Act II carried on at a frenetic pace. And while Joby Talbot’s music suited the choreography very well, with wonderful uses of the percussion section, and Barry Wordsworth got the orchestra to play it eloquently, I felt a lack of tension. But these are relatively minor quibbles, and if we compare this new full-length ballet to the new full-length opera Anna Nicole that premiered from the Royal Opera House less than two weeks ago, the ballet is far more creative.
See it during its first run if you can, though I’m sure it will be revived in a year or two’s time. This is a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada, whose first performance in Toronto is on June 4. Performances by the Royal Ballet continue until March 15 — for more details click here.