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A dance through 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon says, 'The characters are so physical on the page that they scream out for movement.' His ballet visits this week.

October 13, 2012|By Joseph Carman
  • Sonia Rodriguez in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" with the National Ballet of Canada.
Sonia Rodriguez in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"… (Bruce Zinger, The National…)

The Mad Hatter executes demonic time steps, his tap dancing signifying his mindless chatter. An enormous dismembered Cheshire Cat floats through space like a Japanese bunraku puppet. The Queen of Hearts glides threateningly around the stage in a bulbous, hard-framed, heart-shaped gown. Playing cards projected onto a scrim shuffle in concert with a full corps de ballet. And then there's Alice, who hardly ceases dancing through the entire ballet, gets pulled by the White Rabbit into a jelly mold that morphs into a computer-generated spiraling sinkhole, swirling with Victorian font letters.

Shaping the madcap episodic nature of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" to the constraints of classical ballet might have deterred a lesser choreographer than Christopher Wheeldon. But his full-length story ballet, co-produced by Britain's Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, delivered box office candy in its original London and Toronto performances in 2011. Based on Lewis Carroll's book and danced by the National Ballet of Canada, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" will make its U.S. debut in Los Angeles at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Friday-Sunday.

The challenges of mounting this three-act spectacle, from the creative process to the performance preparation to the obstacles of touring, have been daunting. Art, when it involves a multimillion-dollar budget, a cast of 70 dancers plus numerous extras (including children as hedgehog croquet balls), 300 stage cues, intricately choreographed computer graphics and crucially timed vaudevillian comedy, isn't easy.


From the inception, Wheeldon knew he had to corral the resources of his creative team, which included designer Bob Crowley, librettist Nicholas Wright and composer Joby Talbot, who penned the original score. "I basically kidnapped them and locked them into my apartment," says Wheeldon, who has created narrative ballets but secured his reputation as a world-class choreographer with spare neoclassical pieces such as "Polyphonia."

After days reading through the source material ("The characters are so physical on the page that they scream out for movement," Wheeldon says), the team decided on a story arc that includes a through line of a romance between Alice, who is a young teenager rather than prepubescent, and the Knave of Hearts. The opening scene in 1862 Oxford also introduces Alice Liddell, the true-life girl who inspired the books, along with her family and Lewis Carroll himself.

"Once we broke ground with that — we knew it was going to be a big show, very spectacular and beautiful — then it was about transitioning seamlessly from one situation to the next and letting it flow through the visual and theatrical language," Wheeldon says.

Talbot calls the commissioned score, which took 21/2 years and many sleepless nights, "far and away the most difficult thing I've ever been asked to write." He had to logically link 24 scenic movements displaying a wide spectrum of color and emotion. The composition, which alternately evokes Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Elgar, Tchaikovsky and minimalist composers, enlists in its orchestration, says Talbot, "a warehouse full of percussion instruments, a wordless female chorus, Middle Eastern drummers, a purring French horn section for the Cheshire Cat and an off-key ram's horn trumpet for the White Rabbit to herald the Queen of Hearts in the style of the Great Gonzo."

Greta Hodgkinson, who portrays the Queen of Hearts, calls the role "a huge romp" requiring precise technique that has to appear wildly off-balance and comic timing that's not overcooked.

"Chris [Wheeldon] wanted her to be completely out of control and mad, almost schizophrenic, and then turn on a dime and be sickeningly sweet," Hodgkinson says.

The Queen jumps on pointe, flails her arms, then suddenly hits a graceful Romantic ballerina pose to a passage for violin tuned a strident semitone sharp. In the last act, the Queen dances a parody of Petipa's "Rose Adagio" from "The Sleeping Beauty" with four hapless, low-ranked cards.

Hodgkinson says Wheeldon crafted the character as "an amalgamation of all the divas he had ever worked with" and thinks "he secretly would have loved to have danced that role."

Throughout the ballet, Alice jumps, pirouettes, swoons and dodges scenery and props, like flying butcher knives and sausage links in the Duchess' kitchen scene. "There's a fine line with all of the acting — you want to make it look natural, despite the technical demands," says Sonia Rodriguez, who dances the athletically demanding title role for National Ballet of Canada.

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