Alice’s Romp Through Wonderland

Could any creative team have as much fun as the men who sat down together to make the ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

The workshopping of Christopher Wheeldon, Joby Talbot, Nicholas Wright and Bob Cowley was probably as funny as the ballet itself.

Let’s see? How about a send up of the Rose Adage in Sleeping Beauty, a giant-sized Cheshire Cat with a cute face that assembles and reassembles itself, a caterpillar who walks on sparkly pointe shoes, a plethora of Victoriana designs and props, from tapestries to a giant jelly to a toy theatre, and all topped with splash of surrealism, including ambulatory topiary hedges and a clock with hands that spin backwards in time.

Laugh-out-loud dance works don’t come along very often and when they do they are usually one act productions like Robbins’ The Concert, Kylian’s Symphony in D, and Ekman’s Cacti. But Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has enough dance and visual gags to keep the laughter going through all three acts.

The creatives were smart in the way they placed the big moments throughout the ballet so that it doesn’t lag. Those moments include the dizzy descent of Alice and the White Rabbit into wonderland, the loveable Cheshire Cat who almost steals the show, the exotic hip swiveling Caterpillar, the tapping Mad Hatter and, best of all, The Queen of Hearts who throws herself into the Rose Adage accompanied and semi-supported by terrified male partners whose heads may roll at any moment.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is new to Australia this year but has been a staple of the Royal Ballet since it premiered at the Royal Opera House in London in 2011 and is now staged by several companies who can count on its box office success.

The choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, acknowledges that Alice is part ballet, part vaudeville, part Broadway show. As he said: “It’s an entertainment. That’s really what it’s all about. That’s one of the reasons I chose the story in the first place. I always say Alice is like a dance variety in a sense, rather than a full length story although it has a story, a through line”.

The through line is the relationship of young Alice with Jack, a gardener’s boy in real life who becomes The Knave of Hearts in wonderland. Will they, won’t they, end up safely at the end with the Knave surviving the murderous threats of the Queen? Of course they will.

The role of Alice is similar to that of Clara in Nutcracker in that both spend much of their time watching others dance. That problem was solved by Peter Wright when, in his most successful Nutcracker production, Clara danced with the various characters in the second act.

Wheeldon’s Alice does dance throughout the ballet, often with the Knave, and sometimes with others, but she does spend a lot of her time dancing or acting alone or observing the craziness around her.

On the opening night in Sydney of the Australian Ballet’s Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, Ako Kondo as Alice managed the on stage marathon extremely well and with the sensibility and charm of a 14 year old mid-way between childhood and adulthood.

Adam Bull, in his dual role as Lewis Carroll and The White Rabbit, showed just as much stamina, excelling in his fast footwork and numerous jumps.

Ty King-Wall, as the Knave, was charming in his hero role and partnered Kondo well while Amy Harris in her dual role of Alice’s cranky mother and The Queen of Hearts sailed through the Rose Adage with just the right amount of silliness and fun as the male ballerinas of the Trocks.

Bob Crowley’s designs range from a wonderful house of cards for the wonderland scenes, with tutu skirts in the shapes of hearts diamonds, clubs and spades, to shiny red armour for the Queen and her guards and the liquorice allsorts coloured dresses for the women at the garden party at Alice’s home.

Working in collaboration with the projection designers Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, Crowley’s concept of the rabbit hole descent seems to show a nod to the Italian designer, Piero Fornasetti, the Italian painter, sculptor and engraver who is best known today for his decorated plates showing the face of a woman (the soprano, Lina Cavalieri) in many different moods.

If you look at the official Fornasetti website you will see swirling, curling footage that looks much like the rabbit hole journey.

At the end of Alice’s descent there’s another Fornasetti moment when we see one of the painter’s images of his favourite model, this time tears in her eyes.

The tears dissolve into a sea, then a sailing boat made of newspaper takes Alice and the White Rabbit across the stage in the same way as the Panorama scene in The Sleeping Beauty, when the Lilac Fairy and the Prince travel sail together to find the sleeping Aurora.

Wheeldon’s Alice is a romp through 20th century dance styles as well as an homage to ballets of the past with its waltz of the flowers, Rose Adage, the Caterpillar’s retinue that resembles the Arabian divertissement in Nutcracker as well as the costumes of La Bayadere, and the placement upstage of the Queen and her husband, the King, (Steven Heathcote) that is similar to Checkmate.

The references are all part of the fun and that fun means Alice is going to draw audiences around the world for a long time to come.

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Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, photo © Daniel Boud

Artists of the Australian Ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, photo © Daniel Boud

Rina Nemoto and Rohan Furnell (centre), with artists of the Australian Ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, photo © Daniel Boud

Fornasetti outside and inside the window face

Adam Bull, Steven Heathcote, Amy Harris and Ako Kondo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud