Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix Special Edition!: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland the ballet.

Y’know, I wasn’t going to review this DVD.  When it comes to Fairy Tale Media Fix, I tend to stick to movies and TV shows that are based on a fairy tale that arose out of folk culture or at least found their way into it (Cinderella, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc).  So, when it comes to the classic works of children’s literature, I usually leave those for Fantasy Literature Rewind.  Why?  Well, because I was always afraid that I was stretching the definition of “fairy tale” a little too thin.  However, after a friend on Twitter saw my plans to watch this, she responded so enthusiastically about reading a review of it that I thought “What the heck!”.  After all, it might be time for a change of pace anyway.  Besides, with the trailer for the sequel to the (ugh) Tim Burton Alice movie hitting the internet, it might be a good idea to look at some of the alternatives out there.

So, this version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a ballet in two acts created for Britain’s Royal Ballet.  The music is composed by Joby Talbot and the ballet is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.
Now, the notion of creating an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ballet may seem a little odd.  After all, so much of the charm of the Alice books came from reading Lewis Carroll’s clever wordplay.  Ballet is traditionally an art form in which everything is conveyed through music, motion and dance.  So that means no Alice reciting “How Doth the Little Crocodile” or Mad Hatter asking how a raven is like a writing desk or the Mouse trying to dry Alice off by giving a dry lecture.

So, how well does it do, despite that?  Pretty well, actually.

Let’s talk about the story, first of all.  For the most part, the bulk of the story is taken directly from Lewis Carroll’s first Alice book.  There are episodes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that are not present in the ballet, assumedly cut for time and to facilitate the flow of the story.  For example, this version of Alice never meets the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle (which is a shame, because I would have liked to see the Lobster Quadrille performed on stage).  But, unlike other versions of the story, there are no bits from Through the Looking Glass shoehorned in.  The primary differences are at the beginning and the end.  The beginning of the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is well-known.  Alice is lazing about on a summer day with her sister when she spots a White Rabbit with a waistcoat and chases after it until she falls down a rabbit hole.  The beginning of this version combines in bits of the history behind the story as well as adding another bit that gets used as a through-line.  In this case, it starts out with Alice (Lauren Cuthbertson) and her two sisters at a Deanery in Oxford being entertained by the one and only Lewis Carroll (Edward Watson).  At the same time, Alice’s mother and father are planning a party.  Here enters the gardener’s boy named Jack (Sergei Polunin), a friend of Alice’s.  Jack gives Alice’s mother a basket of roses but finds a red one in among the white roses and rejects it as being out of place.  Jack offers the red rose to Alice who in return takes a jam tart off of a passing tray and gives it to Jack.  However, Alice’s mother spots Jack with the tart, accuses him of stealing and has him sacked.  Alice’s friend leaves the house in disgrace.  Guests arrive for the party, but Alice is upset about Jack.  Carroll offers to cheer Alice up by taking her picture.  However, he reappears from behind the camera cloth as the White Rabbit.  He then leads her down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland.  Now, Carroll being the White Rabbit is an important bit because it reflects the nature of the cast as a whole.  All the characters in Alice’s waking life have counterparts in Wonderland.  Alice’s mother is also the Queen of Hearts, a magician who shows up for the party is also the Mad Hatter, a visiting Rajah is the caterpillar and of course young Jack is the Knave of Hearts.  This is where the new through-line comes from.  Alice’s connection to Jack as the Knave.  It’s the Knave that Alice dances her pas de deux with later in the ballet.  As for the end . . . I’m not going to give that one away.

So, while the wordplay may be lost from this version of Alice, the wonder is not.  A lot of that is thanks to the many interesting ways that this production uses to convey it.  Much is made of lighting and projection to convey scenes like the one where Alice has to swim through a sea of her own tears or when she is falling down the rabbit hole.  This production embraces elements from all over the theatrical tradition.  The Cheshire Cat, which looks like it stepped right out of John Tenniel’s illustration, is created through a variation of Bunraku puppetry.  Black-cloaked puppeteers control different pieces of the cat and his appearances and disappearances are created by the puppeteers appearing or dispersing with different parts of the cat.   

The Duchess brings an element of Christmas Pantomime to the proceedings in that she’s played by actor Simon Russell Beale in drag.  Heck, the Mad Hatter even shows himself as being a little bit nuttier than the rest by dancing in a completely different style than everyone else.  While everyone else dances ballet, the Hatter tap dances.  The music by Joby Talbot moves at a quick tempo and reflects the madcap nature of Wonderland well.  The dancing . . . is good.  Okay, I’ll admit this.  I don’t know much about dancing.  I tend to watch ballet more from a story point of view.  Though, I found nothing problematic about this dancing in general.  I was actually pretty impressed with how Lauren Cuthbertson was able to portray Alice shrinking or growing in size just through dance.

The ballet of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is just quite a spectacle, it’s worth watching just for that alone.  I’d definitely recommend it if you’ve got the chance to see it.


  1. Watching the clips you linked to reminds me why I love stage productions so much--it forces creativity and outside-the-box thinking in a way that movies don't. This version sounds delightful!

  2. Haven't seen this, but it looks interesting! I like the idea that the characters in Wonderland have counterparts in her real life-in that way it's a lot like Oz, or any of the stories that use fantasy worlds as a way of coping with real life trauma. Yet at the same time one of the most wonderful things about Wonderland is the sheer randomness of it all...but as you say, that type of humor would be very hard to translate directly into ballet.

    I also love the idea of the Mad Hatter tap dancing in a ballet! How perfect

    1. The Oz characters having counterparts in Dorothy's life is only from the movie, not the books. However, the idea works even better for Wonderland, seeing as the characters did have counterparts in Alice Liddell's life. According to an article I read recently, Carroll peppered the story with in-jokes and references for the girl who was originally the tale's intended audience.