Alice's Adventures in Wonderland – review

Royal Opera House, London

The strongest scene in the Royal Ballet's new production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, opens with Alice (Lauren Cuthbertson) standing outside a country cottage. One of many superlative designs by Bob Crowley, the cottage front is realised in needlepoint. Above it is stitched the legend "Home Sweet Home". Entering, Alice finds herself in a steaming inferno of a kitchen. Butchered pigs hang from the ceiling, blood streaks the walls, and a mad-eyed cook (Kristen McNally) grins toothlessly as actor Simon Russell Beale's Duchess tends to a hideous, yowling baby. Alice tries to comfort the baby, but it turns into a pig and is swept away to be turned into sausages.

The scene makes real one of the many sinister undercurrents of Lewis Carroll's book and, as well as providing a glimpse behind the baize door that divided idealised Victorian family life from the grim realities on which it depended, provides us with an adroit metaphor for self-devouring capitalism and the slaughterhouse of Empire. In this, you sense the subtle hand of playwright Nicholas Wright, whom Wheeldon has brought in to give narrative shape to Carroll's episodic dream tale.

The ballet begins wonderfully, with a picnic on the lawn outside the deanery at Christ Church, Oxford. Alice and her sisters, beguilingly danced by Leanne Cope and Samantha Raine, are entertained by Lewis Carroll (Edward Watson). The gardener's boy, Jack (Sergei Polunin), who loves Alice, gives her a rose. In return she gives him a jam tart, only to see him accused of stealing it by her shrewish, arriviste mother (Zenaida Yanowsky) and dismissed.

Carroll diverts Alice by setting up his camera and, with his shutter-click, effects a magical transformation. In a wonderful coup de theatre, the scene becomes a purplish negative and Carroll is transformed into the White Rabbit. He leaps into his camera bag, disappears, and Alice follows him. She falls into a whirling vortex, brilliantly and hallucinogenically realised by back-projection and, when she finally picks herself up, she's in Wonderland.

As the last full-evening narrative ballet commissioned by the Royal Opera House was Twyla Tharp's Mr Worldly Wise, in 1995, Alice is a significant undertaking, not least in financial terms. That the ROH is declining to comment on its actual budget indicates its sensitivity to matters of expenditure following the revelation that chief executive Tony Hall and music director Antonio Pappano draw salaries which, between them, exceed £1m a year. For Royal Ballet artistic director Monica Mason, whose tenure ends next year, the new work is a career-defining gamble. For Wheeldon, a proven choreographer with experience of running his own company, it can be regarded as a gloves-off, hat-in-the-ring bid for Mason's position.

But Carroll's book is problematic. It depends to a considerable degree on wordplay, untranslatable into dance. There's no dramatic through-line, no character development, and, emotionally speaking, Alice remains a curiously disengaged figure throughout. And at a time when the Royal Opera is moving into defiantly adult territory with Anna Nicole, based on the life and tawdry death of an American sex symbol, it seems a little timorous of the Royal Ballet to invest in yet another children's story, one of a slew of bankable but artistically conservative Cinderellas, Nutcrackers, Wizards of Oz and Alices (Ashley Page unveils his own version for Scottish Ballet next month), on which classical dance companies are falling back in increasing numbers.

Right now, Wheeldon is in an uncertain place. Having trained and danced with the Royal Ballet, he joined New York City Ballet in 1993, where he was named the company's first resident choreographer in 2001. Pieces from this time, such as the abstract Polyphonia, confirmed his status as a serious choreographic contender. In 2007 he co-founded Morphoses, a brave but arguably naive venture which always struggled for self-definition, and from which, three years later, he would walk away, citing funding difficulties.

Meanwhile, his output for the Royal Ballet has been uneven. DGV: Danse à grande vitesse is a seat-of-the-pants neoclassical joyride nominated for an Olivier award, but Electric Counterpoint is a feeble slice of hi-tech pretension. Although brilliantly faceted, his work can lack dramatic substance.

And so with Alice. Wheeldon's casting of Cuthbertson, rather than one of the company's established ballerinas, is inspired. With her hairband, willowy line and airy English style, she inhabits the role from the first. Wheeldon takes advantage of her facility for turns and her breezy jump and gives her a pert, kicked-up back leg as leitmotif. Spiffing though Cuthbertson is, however, Alice's role is largely reactive. And too often, reactive to scenes which, without Carroll's words, have neither meaning nor coherence. The caucus race, for example, is several long minutes of directionless running around, with the dancers little more than animated costumes. The Mad Hatter scene, deprived of its riddles and verbal non-sequiturs, is reduced to an accomplished but pointless tap dance for Steven McRae.

If Wheeldon's choreography fails to move the plot forward, Joby Talbot's superlative score and Crowley's gorgeous effects rarely falter. The huge, shape-shifting Cheshire Cat, dissolving and re-forming before your eyes as the orchestra describes a glissando miaow, is an invention of genius. The White Rabbit has a tinkling, crystalline theme, in obedience to which Watson darts around with neurotic, time-checking precision. Talbot's music swoops, flutters and shimmers in concord with Alice's mood, now flutish and inquiring, now brassily perplexed, and for her duets with Jack, transformed by her dream into the Knave of Hearts, he delivers passages of spun-sugar lyricism.

Frustratingly, the love story never really takes off. Wheeldon's steps are winsome enough, especially those in the final pas de deux, which ends with the pair arched towards each other in a heart shape, but Polunin, a dancer of blistering virtuosity, is never given the chance to show what he can do. Instead, he spends much of the ballet ducking and weaving and attempting to avoid Yanowsky's vengeful Queen of Hearts.

And it's here that Wheeldon takes a highly questionable turn, introducing a pastiche Rose Adagio (from The Sleeping Beauty) within which Yanowsky switches from frozen basilisk to camp, sub-Trockadero drag-queen, pulling "oooh matron" faces as she lurches around and slides bathetically into splits. The routine wins belly laughs but subverts both plot and mood, and it takes a brilliant final twist by Wright to return us to anything like a state of enchantment.

Alice is a work of many parts, many of them dazzling and a fair few of them magical. With its family audience appeal, it will certainly make money for the Royal Ballet and, in these straitened times, that is an important consideration. But in his choice of subject and in his handling of it, the piece confirms Christopher Wheeldon as an artist of uncertain touch. His talent is undoubted but his judgment open to question, and how this affects the possibility of his becoming director of the company remains to be seen.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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