This is my fifth or sixth go round with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011), and I doubt that there is another dance version of Lewis Carroll’s beloved book that strives to be truer to the original in its epic sweep.
Certain facts about the ballet remain constant. Christopher Wheeldon’s character-driven choreography is brilliant. Joby Talbot’s cinematic score is brilliant. Bob Crowley’s set and costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting, Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s projections, and Andrew Bruce’s sound design, all brilliant. In short, Alice is a masterpiece, not to mention that the National’s dancers embrace this work like their own skin. They own it and they kill it. Maestro David Briskin and his orchestra know the music inside out, and the Four Seasons Centre was filled with glorious sound.
One might argue that Nicholas Wright’s storyline is a bit too crammed full, and that with three acts, the ballet is a tad too long, but quite frankly, which of the eye-popping scenes would you leave out? Not everything was perfect on opening night, however. As noted in last week’s mixed program, the corps work was a bit uneven and needed tightening. For example, the men in the deck of cards ensemble, who jump, turn and land on one knee in sequence, were noisy and rather clumsy when they hit the ground – but then, Maestro Briskin was conducting the orchestra faster than a speeding bullet so they were running for their lives.
The most significant debut in the opening night cast was Francesco Gabriele Frola in the dual role of Jack/Knave of Hearts, who is the danseur noble of the piece. Italian-born Frola was promoted to principal dancer in 2018, and he is a fine technician, clean and precise. He also is very musical, and you can see the music in his body. What Frola needs however, is some pizzazz. At the moment he seems a bit tame. He also has to get his acting chops into a higher gear. Frola is a talented, attractive dancer in need of a fire in his belly.
Of the other debuting dancers, Jenna Savella portrayed the slovenly Cook in the Pig and Pepper scene and brought clarity and strength to the role. As a result, I got a lot more out of the choreography than mass confusion. Jack Bertinshaw as his first March Hare gave the tap-dancing Mad Hatter (Donald Thom) a run for his money, and brought insight into that warring duet. Choreographer Wheeldon has given the two Footmen, Giorgio Galli (Fish) and Félix Paquet (Frog), lots of showy virtuosity, which these two dancers pulled off with aplomb. As for Meghan Pugh as the sleepy Dormouse, she was cute. Tina Pereira and Calley Skalnik were fetching as Alice’s sisters.
As a final comment, I’m finally starting to unpack the ballet, as it were. I’m pretty sure I now have a handle on all the choreographic stage business in the first scene garden party at the Deanery. (The family members and their guests all show up later as characters in Wonderland.) Simply put, Alice continues to captivate, and I am forever finding elements in the ballet that I never noticed before.
National Ballet of Canada, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, Four Seasons Centre, Mar. 7 to 17, 2019.