Absolutely critical to the success of the show are the brilliant animated scenic effects which so believably recreate the absurdist elements of Lewis Carroll's classic fantasy. Equally important are the wildly over-the-top costumes and sets designed by Bob Crowley, who has actually succeeded in outdoing the classic John Tenniel illustrations in conveying the air of subversive madness running throughout the story. The best example is the Duchess' kitchen set, a monstrous array of outsize implements, steaming pots, and a sausage machine -- although the Queen of Hearts runs a close second with her "skirt", which you have to see to believe.
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has successfully brought in a diverse array of dance styles to suit all the characters in the story. Thus you get a decidedly classical Knave of Hearts, alongside a parody of classical with the Queen of Hearts (her first main dance, in both music and choreography, is a hilarious satirical take on the famous Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty). The Cards do gymnastics, the Mad Hatter tap dances, and so it goes. Joby Talbot's original score is right on target throughout the piece, with plenty of tinkling percussion adding a magical air throughout. As with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, the main characters in Wonderland have already appeared in other guise during the introductory scene in Victorian England.
One of the sharpest moves Karen Kain has made as the National's Artistic Director was to form the artistic partnership with the Royal Ballet in London which made the National co-sponsor of the production and gave the company a 5-year exclusive on North American performances of the finished work, as the Royal has a 5-year exclusive for Europe and Britain.
Now, to yesterday's performances.
This ballet is on such a grand scale that the company actually has to augment its ranks with a half-dozen of additional dancers. These integrated seamlessly into the already-sizable corps de ballet. The hard working corps have to appear as flowers, playing cards, and various other small parts throughout the show. Plenty of costume changes for them, and tremendous variety of dance styles too.
In comparing the principal casts of the two performances, there was only one major difference that I noticed. In all other cases, it was a matter of small aspects of a performance that went slightly better with one dancer than with the other. This speaks to the great depth of this company, and the strength and artistry that stretches right across the board.
***CONFLICT OF INTEREST ALERT***
(Robert Stephen is my nephew)
I'll start with the Duchess, which is a role taking off directly from the British traditional pantomime "dames". That means that this female character is played by a male character dancer. It's a role with very large demands on acting skills, but relatively lesser demands on actual dance -- although even here Wheeldon has crammed in a fair amount of comical dance work. Etienne Lavigne (afternoon) and Piotr Stanczyk (evening) are both very fine dancers in other repertoire, and both delighted with their comical clumsiness. Stanczyk perhaps pushed the prima donna wannabe aspect of the character a little more, but both did great work.
Many of the scenes have the Duchess playing off her Cook, whose hatchet-wielding antics are just as hilarious as her employer's social climbing. Both Stephanie Hutchison (afternoon) and Rebekah Rimsay (evening) came across strongly, with Rimsay just that little bit more seductive in the scene where she displays her obvious attraction to the Queen's executioner and his giant axe!
The sensuous faux-Arabic role of the Caterpillar was taken by Felix Paquet (afternoon, making his debut in this role) and Harrison James (evening). Of the two, James was perhaps the more assured but Paquet was the more smooth and sinuous in movement (a necessary quality).
The Mad Hatter's seven-minute Tea Party scene, crammed with rapid-fire tap dancing, is a total show stopper and no wonder! As far as I know, nothing like this exists anywhere else in ballet -- certainly not in the National Ballet's repertoire -- and it always brings a huge response from the audience. Jack Bertinshaw (afternoon) and Robert Stephen (evening) both more than met the demands of the role, both in dancing and in acting.
The legendary Rex Harrington was hilarious at both shows in the character role of the King of Hearts.
Both Xiao Nan Yu (afternoon) and Greta Hodgkinson (evening) generated laughs galore as the Queen. The satirical choreography requires a very broad style of acting, as well as the difficult challenge for any performer of deliberately doing badly what you normally strive to do well. I think Hodgkinson was marginally stronger in the acting side of things, her expressive face working overtime to register reactions to everything that happened. With both, the wacky slow dance was sheer delight.
The White Rabbit begins the show as Lewis Carroll entertaining Alice and her sisters and actually begins to transform into the Rabbit on stage -- a very neat staging trick. Robert Stephen in the afternoon was strong in the various difficult leaps built into this sizable role. Dylan Tedaldi in the evening did just as well, and managed to up the ante slightly in terms of "rabbit business" -- scratching ears, stroking whiskers, etc. Although his final ear scratch, the last laugh of the show, wasn't as clear as Stephen's, people certainly got the joke in both performances!
In the dual role of Jack (garden boy) and the Knave of Hearts we got Keiichi Hirano in the afternoon. His performance was great, a fine balance of the large technical demands with the emotional arc of the character, all clearly expressed through face and gesture. And this is where I had my one disappointment of the day. In the evening, Naoya Ebe was incredibly precise and fiery in the technical dance aspect of the role, but did not do nearly so well at conveying the feelings of the character to the audience.
That emotional arc, of course, has to do with the Knave's growing love for Alice throughout the story. In the intriguing final scene, we have to believe that "they lived happily ever after" and then some, and with Hirano and his Alice (Sonia Rodriguez) that came across loud and clear.
The role of Alice is by far the largest and most demanding of the show. It includes solos and duets, plenty of scope for acting, and the need to become truly a part of every scene. Rodriguez and the evening Alice, Jillian Vanstone, were both magnificent. There were slight differences in tone and feeling from moment to moment, but it's not really necessary to analyse these. Both dancers created a most believable character and took us with them on the strange journey that Wonderland lays out for her.
The good news in all of this is that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland continues right up to March 29 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. Run, don't walk, to get tickets for this scintillating, unique theatre and dance experience!