The most notable thing about The National Ballet of Canada’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the number of things worth noting. On March 7, over the course of Christopher Wheeldon’s dance adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic, the audience at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts was inundated with tottering stacks of teacups, a stage-filling lake made of tears, royal croquet matches with flamingo mallets and balled-up porcupines, ceiling-high card houses, a gigantic stopwatch and stubbornly paint-resistant rose bushes.
These elaborate production details conjure the chaos and magic of Wonderland, all competing for attention. It’s no wonder that Jillian Vanstone’s Alice is in a near-constant state of pirouette. Her persistent spinning makes clear that Wonderland is disorienting, and appropriately so: the Alice of this production is not a child (as in the book) but an adolescent, navigating the often confusing rules of the world and how they will shape who she will be.
With so much to absorb visually, the dancing can sometimes feel relegated to one production element among many instead of being the ballet’s focus. An emphasis on theatricality results in dancing that is sometimes dwarfed by the sensational set design (Bob Crowley) and projection effects (Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington). The spectacle of Alice works best when dancers participate more fully in the fantastical staging of Carroll’s plot: picture the disembodied Cheshire Cat, assembled playfully by black-clothed dancers, and Alice’s puzzlement after she leaps through his stomach. Or observe Alice’s fluctuating body size as she twirls wildly across the stage, “shrinking,” as the background projection enlarges so she appears too small to reach a door handle. These moments that emphasize the strangeness of body and place — grounded through movement — are more keenly resonant in a story about adolescence and developing identity.
Despite the focus on spectacle, there is much to appreciate in the dancing and Wheeldon’s character-driven choreography. Through a range of movement vocabularies, we encounter slinky pink flamingos; dancers’ arms becoming craning necks; a frog created with deep plié squats and energetic jumps; and pleasingly symmetrical arrangements of flower-dancers with expansive, blooming upper bodies. As the twitchy White Rabbit, Skylar Campbell brings suitably frantic energy to the character, executing tight pirouettes and quick, low échappé bunny-hops. The playing cards move with militaristic efficiency and rigidity, which they might have acquired from observing the Queen’s own angular carriage and propensity for drawing a stiff, threatening hand across her throat.
The main action that propels us through this often bewildering dreamscape and its characters is the ongoing conflict between Alice, her mother (Greta Hodgkinson) and Jack, the gardener’s boy (Gabriele Francesco Frola). Alice’s mother disapproves of Alice’s infatuation with Jack, and at the garden party, she accuses him of stealing a tart. Dismayed, Alice engages her mother in uneasy confrontation. Mother and daughter rise on pointe and face each other, locked in step as they pace forward and backward, bodies veering toward and then away from each other. The moment seems to convey the stakes of the ballet: the complicated negotiation between adolescence and adulthood, authority and autonomy.
Alice’s other major relationships in the ballet are more positive, lending support on her Wonderland journey until she ultimately re-enacts her brave encounter with her mother, only this time with the Queen of Hearts (also played by Hodgkinson). In moments of doubt, Alice is comforted when dancing with the White Rabbit who, as gatekeeper and guide to Wonderland, represents imaginative possibility. All of Alice’s sequences with the Knave of Hearts (Jack’s Wonderland counterpart), particularly the satisfying pas de deux in the third act, are sweetly tender sections danced with convincing chemistry. With Frola, Vanstone barely touches the ground, and given the amount of lifts, there’s an appropriate sense of effortless buoyancy as they express their romance and plead the Knave’s innocence. Frola deserves top marks for his capable partnering work, and his solo seems infused by the passion of their long-awaited pairing.
So, what do we make of Alice’s adventures, the dream from which she awakes? It’s worth remembering the scene where, lost in Wonderland, Vanstone performs a solo of a surprisingly different tenor. She seems to be seeking a form of expression or clarity to her thoughts, and her movement is more contemplative instead of conveying Alice’s typical exuberance. The solo is interrupted by the Caterpillar’s smoke rings, which query appropriately: “How are you?” and “Who are you?” Alice’s developing identity is central to the story: Wonderland presents a complicated array of possible ways to act and be, and Alice must decide and pursue what she believes is fair and valuable. But these important questions are only made possible through imagination and the room it affords for exploration. Imagination, pleasure and play are the values Alice holds dear, and it’s these qualities that make it so delightful to watch.