I booked tickets for the Royal Ballet’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ at The Royal Opera House way back in September which was lucky because despite only starting its run this March the entire run sold out last October six months ahead of the performances, too early for the popularity to be explained by the Black Swan phenomenon. So what is it that has made this new ballet such a predetermined hit?
Alice is the first full length work to be created by the Royal Ballet since 1995. Here finally is a piece to rival the Nutcracker’s supremacy, perhaps enough to knock it off the top spot. The mysterious tale is popular with adults and children alike as witnessed by the success of Tim Burton's recent film. It was just a matter of time before it was adapted and staged as a ballet.
This is storytelling at its very best, with no detail of Lewis Carroll’s original book neglected. Christopher Wheeldon is a provocative choreographer who seems to have examined the qualities of the narrative. The magic is all there, magnified even with an exquisite set and breathtaking puppetry. Even with the financial support that Wheeldon was fortunate to receive, the staging presents some seemingly impossible tasks... episodes like the growing and shrinking Alice are achieved miraculously.
Lauren Cuthbertson is a fresh, gracious and inquisitive young Alice. She has the ability to capture real emotion through both her dancing and her cheeky facial expressions; she is utterly engaging throughout. It is a big role to play, she barely leaves the stage, and when she isn’t falling or racing about, her time is spent twisting and twirling. The narrative is slightly altered in this adaptation: though lured down the rabbit hole by the bonkers white rabbit, it is the gardener’s boy (Sergei Polunin) she is keen to pursue, a love interest that is very much a part of the new storyline.
The music, by Joby Talbot, is suitably weird and wonderful; led by a huge percussion section of five bold players, the melodies soar and the rhythms match the dizzying story perfectly. I was sitting directly above the orchestra (high up in the £8 seats!) and could see the power and energy of the conductor Barry Wordsworth, the new score is obviously exciting them as much as it is being gratefully received by us. The music is at times very filmic but nonetheless very danceable and appropriate for Lewis Carroll.
I have played an evil red Queen in my time as a performer and can say she is a fabulously fun villain to be; fierce Zenaida Yanowsky triumphs as the Queen of Hearts relishing every ounce of nastiness much to the delight of the audience. She arrives in a red heart chariot, eyes glaring and finger pointing at anyone who dares look her way. The carriage later opens to reveal the poor tired King kneeling at her feet, kicked about by her dangerously pointed shoes. I have never heard the Royal Opera House roar with laughter like it did while Yanowsky frolicked about on stage, long gone are the pretty ballerinas.
The mad hatter, played here by a very talented Steven McRae, is meant to be a rambling chatterbox – a character that is difficult to convey in speechless ballet. Wheeldon replaces chatter with tap dancing, his marvellously frenzied footwork contrasts with the classically dancing Alice. The magnificent costumes leave little to the imagination, no expense is spared, everyone looks outrageous. I particularly loved the little kids rolling about in spiky outfits as the hedgehogs and the pink clad girls delicately hopping on one leg, mimicking flamingos.
I found the first act a little long, and was ready for the interval when it came. The second half moves more quickly, with awe inspiring dances, one after another. The choreography here is not as complex or virtuosic as it might be but amazes because it is beautiful and full of panache.
Long live Weeldon’s Alice, I predict it will be an immortal classic, a success that the Royal Ballet has been craving for a while. It is criminal that there are only six performances.
See more on the Royal Opera House website here.