I broke my rule about non-business-related travel to trek down to NYC for the National Ballet of Canada's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (It's...it's sort of Victorian. Right?) When I've discussed Alice before, I've noted that it's unbelievably difficult to adapt: Alice's plotless adventures, in which she stumbles again and again into situations where the characters simply have no interest in her arrival and even less in her departure, work magically on the page but frequently become inert on stage or film. I've come around to thinking that the most successful "straight" adaptation is Jonathan Miller's relatively short black-and-white version for the BBC (1966), which is all the more eerie because there are no funny animal costumes, no special effects, and no attempt at a plot--just Alice wandering through a landscape populated with genteel Victorians doing utterly bizarre things. The NBoC's Alice, a joint production with the Royal Ballet (which I'd originally planned on seeing this winter, before I had to reschedule my UK trip), tries to compromise between the novel's seriality and the dramatic demand for a plot. The plot in question is, not surprisingly, romantic. In both the Victorian prologue and the dream itself, Alice falls for Jack/the Knave, who is, of course, on the run due to some misunderstandings about tarts. This is about it for the romance, which is easy to forget (Alice keeps doing so, so why shouldn't the audience?), and is not helped along by the Knave's utter blankness as a character (and uninteresting choreography, to boot).
Ironically, then, that leaves the serial set pieces, which tend to be far more interesting than the main plot. The ballet's pacing is somewhat bizarre, and some of the pacing problems are far more evident in the theatre than on video, where editing choices and close-ups accentuate aspects of the choreography or mime that get lost on stage. This is most obvious in the Hall of Doors sequence and the Caucus Race, both of which are long on film and really, really, really long on stage--one wishes that the axe-wielding Executioner would walk on and perform some impromptu editing. Then matters (and, at the performance I attended on Saturday evening, the audience) quickly pick up in the eye-poppingly short Act II, with the introduction of the extremely clever Cheshire Cat puppet, a 3D Tenniel sketch animated by multiple dancers, and the Mad Hatter's tap-dancing Tea Party. (Both scenes garnered the first applause of the evening.) Finally, Act III has the evening's only taut narrative action, as Alice and the Knave have to deal with the evening's walking ballet parody, the Queen of Hearts. The Queen's Jam Tart adagio, which, along with the Tea Party, is by now the ballet's best-known scene, had the audience laughing uproariously, but there are certainly more giggles along the way than one might expect from a ballet (Alice trying to reach a doorknob, or experiencing the aftereffects of the Caterpillar's mushroom; the prissy King of Hearts' ineffectual attempts to handle his wife).
Wheeldon has repeatedly compared this Alice to a musical, and I think that the grumbling about the sometimes minimal choreography misses the point of what he's trying to do here--this is not really targeted at the audience for William Forsythe (let alone Swan Lake), and it does succeed as a show, not least because of some exceptionally beautiful costumes and nifty video projections. (Until Act III, there's actually not all that much physical set.) Once we got beyond the interminable Act I, I was definitely enjoying myself. That being said, as I mentioned before, some of the scenes do work better on video than on stage: this is especially true of "Pig and Pepper" and the moment where things go haywire in the courtroom, both of which look coherent when filmed (thanks to the aforementioned editing) and are incredibly difficult to watch live (where there's no logical place for the audience to focus). Similarly, unless you know it's there, it's easy to miss the Cook's little love affair with the Executioner. By contrast, the dance for the Cards in Act III is even more effective live, where you can appreciate the "2D" effect and the geometrical shapes. In general, the video projections work better in the theater than when they've been mediated by yet another layer of video.
If you've seen the Royal Ballet's filmed versions, the 2011 DVD and the 2013 live cinema broadcast, then most of the characterizations will be familiar. At the performance I attended, only two performers reshaped the characters in strikingly different ways from their RB counterparts. Wheeldon has repeatedly said that he thinks of the Mad Hatter as "demonic," and the RB's original Mad Hatter, Steven McRae (to whom this role is pretty much vacuum-sealed at this point), is all thousand-yard stares, his lips curling into perpetual sneers, scowls, and snarls. A visitor to the Tea Party might want to watch out when the Hatter gets too near the knives. McRae also has extremely intense chemistry with his usual March Hare, Ricardo Cervera, which occasionally tips over from buddy-buddy into something slightly homoerotic; in general, his Mad Hatter provides the evening with one of its sharper edges. By contrast, Robert Stephen dumps the demonism and instead plays the Hatter as a blissful pothead--one does wonder what's in the baked goods--and his affect is less insane and more stoned out of his mind. His March Hare, Jon Renna, is correspondingly dottier, and the Tea Party trio are overall more overtly comic than at the RB. (Stephen, unlike McRae, is not a life-trained tap dancer, and he doesn't try to do any of McRae's fancier tricks, but although he seemed to be getting some help from the pit--the Hatter normally provides most of his scene's percussion effects--his tapping was comfortable and clearly articulated.) Similarly, the RB's original White Rabbit, Edward Watson, is tall, rangy, and more "mature" than most of the other characters, a bundle of nerves about to explode every which way. Besides the Knave, he's the only character to be consistently interested in (albeit frustrated by) Alice. Dylan Tedaldi is Watson's physical opposite, small and compactly built, and he's visibly far younger; he was less avuncular guide, more Alice's and the Knave's contemporary, but also more self-assured. And, quite frankly, much cuter--he looked a bit like a teddy bear, and one did want to give him a hug.