The Cheshire Cat. The Caterpillar and his hookah. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare. White rabbits and “Drink me” bottles and “Off with her head!” Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is, without question, one of the most enduring works of Western literature, absolutely jam-packed with iconic characters and visuals. It’s also one of the most frequently adapted stories ever. Try clicking on its Wikipedia entry and take a brief stroll through its many versions, spinoffs, “sequels” and permutations. From film and television, to comic books, to video games, to opera, to psychedelic rock songs, we can’t seem to shake the image of that little girl who fell down a rabbit hole.
No shock, then, that the National Ballet of Canada (in a coproduction with the UK’s Royal Ballet) has created a new spin on the classic tale. Using fairy tales and children’s literature as source material for a story ballet is nothing new, although this production, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, features bold visual elements, like a 10-foot Caterpillar, video projections and a stunning, six-dancer Cheshire Cat puppet whose body parts can separate and fly apart at a moment’s notice.
“It’s different than your usual story ballet, because it’s so over the top and filled with special effects and huge sets,” says Aleksandar Antonijevic, a principal dancer taking on the dual role of the White Rabbit and Lewis Carroll himself. “The storyline moves much faster than traditional story ballets. I think this is in line with the speed of life today. It really grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the end.”
A huge hit in London, Alice returns to Toronto after a popular run last spring before embarking on a tour to Los Angeles and Washington, DC. As in Tim Burton’s recent film adaptation, the ballet’s Alice has been reimagined as older, allowing for the addition of a love interest to the story — Jack in the real world, who becomes the Knave of Hearts in Wonderland. Also like the Burton version, this Alice is targeted as much to an adult audience as a family one.
“It’s such a hit with audiences because it appeals to both kids and adults,” Antonijevic explains. “It’s a feast for the eyes, with larger-than-life sets, colourful costumes and lots of humour. It’s a very theatrical production that moves at lightning speed.”
Having recently celebrated his 20th year with the National Ballet, Antonijevic thinks Alice will go down as one of the most memorable productions of his career — and one of the most ambitious.
“It’s definitely envelope-pushing in terms of the staging,” he says. “The sheer volume of the technical crew, dancers and extras involved in the production is the most that I’ve ever encountered with the company.”
As in most performing arts disciplines, finding new audiences while maintaining relationships with existing ones is key to survival; in Antonijevic’s opinion, Alice has stumbled upon a winning balance of the two.
“For traditionalists, it does have this beautiful melodic score and romantic pas de deux for the two leads. Audiences will recognize references to many of the signature moments of the big classics, such as Sleeping Beauty and Apollo.” But it also won’t scare off those who have never heard of a pas de deux. “It’s great for neophytes, because it’s visually arresting, has a great tempo to the story and is filled with adult humour. I think people will need to see the production a few times to capture all the nuances the accompanying characters are creating on the side.”