1 December 2014 at 4.10pm | Comment on this article
When Christopher Wheeldon is asked why he fell in love with ballet, he always points to the day in childhood when he saw Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée on television. ‘It just seemed like what I was meant to do,’ he says.
Watching Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it is possible to see just how deeply influenced he has been by Ashton’s 1960 pastoral masterwork. Perhaps subconsciously, he seems to have imbibed the lesson that it possible to weave a variety of dance styles into a three-act ballet, and yet mark the entire creation with your own unmistakable stamp.
Like Fille, Alice has a rigorous classical structure, with all the ingredients that a 19th-century choreographer would recognize. All are organized relatively conventionally. But everything is given a vigorous twist by the sheer richness of Wheeldon’s invention, and by his willingness to transmute the traditional classical vocabulary. The Flower Waltz, for example, recalls The Nutcracker. Yet Wheeldon’s sumptuously swirling confection also has the patina of Broadway.
This absorption of different influences is part and parcel of Wheeldon’s desire to keep ballet alive as an art form. When Alice was in rehearsal, new story ballets had become as rare as hen’s teeth –‘However Alice turns out, it needs to be done’, Wheeldon said. ‘We need people to get a bit courageous and have a go.’
Part of that bravery lay in looking outwards. Wheeldon chose Joby Talbot as a composer because had written for film and he knew how to build a score that suggested character and plot. He picked Bob Crowley as designer because he had worked extensively in musicals and could create old-fashioned theatrical magic in thrilling, new ways.
Wheeldon then built a ballet that was full of graceful gestures to other forms of culture – from the American musical to pantomime and music hall. Alice feels inclusive not exclusive, it has a joyful creative abundance that sweeps its audience along. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the glorious parody of the Rose Adage performed by the Queen of Hearts and her tart-scoffing cavaliers, at once both a celebration of one of the most famous moments in ballet and a recognition of its place in countless spoofs.
In a similar vein, the chorus line of dancing cards that tips forward across the stage as projected pictures of playing cards tumble down the screen behind them, feels simultaneously like a tribute to the sharp angularity of George Balanchine’s Stravinsky ballets and a doffing of the cap to generations of Broadway babies. There is a fruitful melding of traditions taking place in front of our eyes.
Searching for the physical embodiment of each character, Wheeldon revels in an enormous freedom of approach – from the dissolving Cheshire Cat manipulated by puppeteers to the sinuous caterpillar, whose feet are balletic but whose upper body is animalistic. The presence in the first cast of Steven McRae, a truly talented tap dancer, gave Wheeldon – who numbers Gene Kelly among his own heroes – a chance to combine ballet with tap, intrigued by what would happen if you set the expressive charge of one against the percussive elements of the other.
An open-armed embrace of all styles of dance combined with a rigorous regard for the classical tradition is part of Christopher Wheeldon’s style, part of what makes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so vibrant and such fun. And when his pink-armed flamingos bend delicately towards the ground, or his spiky child hedgehogs curl into reluctant balls, it’s impossible not to see that child watching television, laughing at the strutting cock and hens who open La Fille mal gardée, and feeling that ballet was something he was meant to do.
This is an extract from Sarah Crompton's article 'A Sense of Style' in The Royal Ballet's programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland runs 6 December 2014–16 January 2015. Tickets are currently sold out, but returns may become available and 67 day tickets are available for each performance.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 16 December 2014. Find your nearest cinema.
The production is sponsored by Van Cleef and Arpels and is given with generous philanthropic support from Celia Blakey and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. It is a co-production with The National Ballet of Canada.