Wheeldon’s Wonderful ‘Alice’

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When British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon left his dance company Morphoses in 2010, I was so worried he might retreat from choreography, exhausted from the battle of keeping a transatlantic dance company funded and strong. How glorious, then, to see the National Ballet of Canada (NBC) bring Wheeldon’s robust new creation, a three-act version of “Alice in Wonderland” (2011) created jointly for NBC and London’s Royal Ballet, to the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion last week as part of the Music Center dance series. It was an eye-popping design extravaganza with rich thematic choreography that held its own against the visual drama. Even Joby Talbot’s score, which began unassumingly, built to a strong, passionate finish. Tis a pity only L.A. and Washington D.C. will get to see this fresh, dynamic take on the classical 3-act ballet.

There were so many smart, refreshing revisions to the story ballet formula in this production, and such an effort to deliver on all the audience expectations from this form, that this “Alice” was a real rival for audiences who seek magic and memories each year at the “Nutcracker.” Trust me, you’ve never seen the likes of Bob Crowley’s sculptural 3-D sets and costumes for this ballet, which — with great help from projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington — unveiled a succession of  powerful moods: from dreamy romantic garden party to menacing pinched doorways to a swollen green hedge maze. Into this colorful, throbbing setting, characters contrasted between the energetically off-kilter — like the  jittery White Rabbit (Aleksandar Antonijevic) and the Duchess jiggling her baby (Kevin D. Bowles) — with the steadiness of Sonia Rodriguez’s Alice, who danced with engaging, clear passion and moved through the storyline like a clean, sharpened arrow.

Compared to the jittery ones, Alice’s mother/the Queen of Hearts (Greta Hodgkinson) was dramatically, menacingly precise: from the garden party scene, where the Mother rose up and down from pointe to the final Act III trial when the Queen signalled a moving clock-face with her crooked, ticking arms. Blood-red anger has never been so well delineated in a ballet.

There was actually no timidity anywhere in this production. Rather than a peeved, wan Alice, Rodriguez’s hardy, raven-haired young woman was more like Odysseus on a journey through a maze of tricks and threats. As Jack/The Knave of Hearts, the earthy Guillaume Côté seemed slightly fast for his music, but otherwise shone in his supporting role. For more than anything, Wheeldon’s “Alice” is a rare, feminist story ballet. The central female character neither dies or tricks or haunts people. Nor does she survive with the help of her prince. She fights for the rights of the unjustly accused, plays with a larger-than-life cat, and pays the price for some rash food/beverage choices. Go Alice!