Left – Amy Harris. Cover – Rina Nemoto, Rohan Furnell and Artists of The Australian Ballet. Photos – Daniel Boud
Perhaps one of the most-adapted works of children’s literature, possibly of literature in general, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland seems like material ripe for adaptation to ballet. With its tale of a girl moving rapidly through strange, whimsical adventures in a charming fantasy land populated by curious creatures, many of them anthropomorphic animals, plants and objects, it is a excitingly rich tapestry.
Although purists might flinch at the loss of Carroll’s famous wordplay, the episodic nature of the story, suffused with surreal dream-logic actually proves well suited to expression in the form of dance, with the many simple, largely self-contained scenes from the children’s book translating to ballet quite effectively indeed. Foreknowledge or at least passing familiarity with the narrative is helpful, but hardly essential, given Alice’s ingrained status in the cultural canon. However, for those more accustomed to abridged versions or other adaptations such as the classic animated Disney film, rather than the original book itself, may find some of the lesser-adapted scenes unfamiliar and perhaps momentarily perplexing, as this three-act ballet gives a fairly comprehensive treatment to Carroll’s sprawling tale.
In addition to Christopher Wheeldon’s wonderful choreography that brings to life the many quirky characters of frogs, playing cards, insects and hares, this splendid showcase is veritably overflowing with wonderful production design by Bob Crowley. Taking the traditional and then-contemporary Victorian setting of Carroll’s book, the costumes evoke the period in their rendering of the fantasy characters, with large wigs shaped to evoke rabbit ears or frog eyes, colourful skirts resembling the petals of dancing flowers, and the Orientalist association of the hookah influencing the bulbous Caterpillar’s presentation as a contortionist in a blue turban and pantaloons, sat atop a large ornamental lamp in lieu of his iconic mushroom.
These visual shorthands are highly effective, and are wonderfully contextualised by the superb set design, which rapidly changes from one story beat to another, revealing entirely new environments. Some impressive projections, scenic effects and even some puppetry are used to represent Alice falling down the rabbit-hole, as well as her growing and shrinking thanks to the properties of various magical drinks and cakes that demand to be consumed. More traditional set-pieces in scenes such as the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the Queen of Hearts’ court are wonderfully realised, filled with bizarre sculptural furnishings and hallucinatory imagery. Small children may even be frightened by the rather gruesome imagery representing the Duchess’ house as an abattoir, in the scene based on the “Pig and Pepper” chapter.
Indeed, the Queen of Hearts herself, the major secondary female role performed by Amy Harris, combines set and costume into her persona, as for her first several appearances she is wheeled on by her guards in a stunningly outlandish contraption that is as much a costume as it is a wearable part of the set. It takes the form of a giant rigid dress with the bodice, crown and an enormous pannier-style “skirt”, all fashioned in huge overlapping heart-shapes. Eventually this trundling conveyance, large enough to hide the King of Hearts crouched within her “dress”, is opened like a wardrobe and the infamously short-tempered monarch is finally free to dance about, play flamingo croquet, and demand the removal of heads.
While the eye-popping production design makes its own unique spin on Wonderland, one pleasing inclusion for fans of the book is that their manifestation of the Cheshire Cat through large-scale disembodied puppetry is directly modelled after the imagery of John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Carroll’s two Alice books.
The production has a few original touches that may either charm or irk Alice aficionados. As understandably requisite of such a demanding lead role for a ballerina, Alice herself is portrayed by Ako Kondo not as the traditional child but rather as a teenager or young woman, and this is reflected by adding a subplot whereby she has a romantic interest in the Knave of Hearts, accused by the Queen of stealing her jam tarts. Whether this was simply intended to justify her less childlike appearance or as a concession to expectations of including traditional coupled dance routines in ballet, it seems a little intrusive to the story and lacks satisfactory narrative payoff. Considering the extensive suspension of disbelief required in the first place by Wonderland itself, representing Alice as a girl of ambiguous age would not have been a tall order.
Another adaptational flourish that is more effective is a framing device which bridges the Victorian era of the book’s origin with the modern day. The ballet opens to a scene of a society garden party, in which we are introduced to an energetic girl who is both the Alice of the fantasy story we are about to see, as well as implied to be Alice Liddell, one of the real-life girls for whom Lewis Carroll first concocted the Wonderland story while visiting with their father. Carroll himself is also represented in this scene by Adam Bull, or rather, this is his real-life counterpart Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician and photographer when not using his nom de plume, and is easily identified here by his costume and camera.
As Alice embarks on her journey into Wonderland, Dodgson transforms into the White Rabbit whom she chases. Similarly, most of the cast play identifiably paired dual roles in this opening scene, such as the highly-strung hostess of the party doubling as the Queen, and a jam tart-stealing gardener’s boy (Ty King-Wall) reappearing as the Knave of Hearts, in a character-substitution device borrowed from that other great pillar of children’s literature with a young female protagonist, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Or, more precisely, from the famous 1939 Hollywood musical version.
This would itself seem to be a kind of closed-circuit loop of adaptive influence, as the film’s implication that Dorothy’s adventures had all been a dream, in which she had “recast” real people from Kansas as the fantastical characters of Oz, was itself likely taken from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Although Carroll’s original book did not contain any such transpositions of roles, it did clearly indicate that Alice had merely dreamed her journey, whereas while L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel did similarly return Dorothy to her home, it diegetically maintained that her experiences in Oz really had taken place, unlike the film adaptation’s ending.
The conclusion of this ballet is another variation again, not returning an Alice awakening from her dream of Wonderland to the 19th Century party at the Liddell’s garden we started with, but rather ending with apparently a third “Alice.” Now she is a modern young woman fallen asleep on a bench while reading Lewis Carroll’s now famous story, during a tour of Oxford, which to this day is a mecca for Carroll fans who make pilgrimages to the sites in which he crafted the story. This present-day Alice and her boyfriend (the redoubled Knave of Hearts) ask a passing local to take a tourist snap of them with their smartphone, only to leave behind her book, which he picks up to read as the curtain falls. This Oxford local is portrayed by Adam Bull, the same performer who represented the White Rabbit and Carroll/Dodgson at the beginning of the framing sequence, his taking of a photograph of “Alice” in these different eras bookending the show.
This is an utterly beguiling, visually arresting production with amazing dancing, generally deft storytelling and is an absolute feast for the eyes, over which even those unfamiliar with the conventions of ballet are sure to be swept away by the energy and spectacle of this impressive adaptation of a beloved classic, seething with unfettered imagination.
The Australian Ballet presents
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
with Australian Ballet and Opera Orchestra
Choreography Christopher Wheeldon
Venue: Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Dates: 5 – 22 December 2017