Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Australian Ballet’s biggest production of the year, breaking records for the number of costumes and set pieces ever made by the company. It’s a bold work seemingly premised on the philosophy that ‘more is more’. At the hands of British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his creative team, Lewis Carroll’s familiar story has been transformed into a spectacular visual feast for the stage. Purists may turn at the thought of a tap-dancing Mad Hatter or ballerinas dancing in the theatre aisles like vaudeville showgirls, but entertainment is the objective here. Wheeldon has embraced the outrageousness of Carroll’s characters and built a fantasy world around them that is remarkably ambitious in scale.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photograph © Jeff Busby
The work begins with a garden party at the home of Alice Liddell – the girl who inspired the original book in 1865 – where Lewis Carroll himself entertains the guests with his stories and antics. Meanwhile, Alice, who is presented as a young woman rather than a girl, soon develops feelings for the gardener’s son, Jack. Their blossoming relationship sets up a loose through-line for the entire work, sewing together the many scenes that follow Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole.
On opening night, principal dancer Ako Kondo performed the demanding role of Alice with youthful exuberance and beautiful lightness. Her character, however, felt a little one dimensional. The inquisitive or even bratty qualities of Carroll’s original Alice, which serve as a counterpoint to the more outrageous characters, were absent. Fellow principal Ty King-Wall impressed as the boyish Jack and Amy Harris provided great comedic relief in her role as the Queen of Hearts.
Over the course of three acts, we follow Alice on her mysterious and bizarre adventure. All of Carroll’s iconic characters – the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar – are colourfully realised through Bob Crowley’s incredible set and costume design. Over 250 costumes feature in the work – each one framed by enormous, tech-heavy set pieces that help bring Carroll’s surreal world to life. Scene changes are fast and frequent, often connected by elaborate video projections that help drive key plot points.
But the set design is so extravagant that it occasionally overpowers the dancing. The result is a ballet that relies heavily on its visual rather than choreographic composition to tell Alice’s story. Only in the second act, where the corps de ballet dominate, does the dancing really drive the narrative. Another exception to the overly-intricate design is the relative simplicity of the Cheshire Cat – a stunning, larger-than-life puppet by Toby Olié, which offers one of the few direct references to John Tenniel’s classic illustrations of Alice.
Amy Harris and Ako Kondo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photograph © Jeff Busby
Joby Talbot’s original score accompanies the work. It is rich, colourful music, designed to match the eccentricity of the characters on stage. Taking inspiration from the story, Talbot uses a ticking clock theme as a recurring motif, often heard through various percussion instruments. The score is full but not overly dense, and marries well with the movement on stage.
All in all, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a spectacle. There is a lot going on here and audiences will no doubt find plenty to enjoy. While a little more space could have been left for the viewer’s own imagination – which is arguably part of the charm of Carroll’s text – the creative team has certainly relished in the opportunity to bring such an iconic and playful story to life.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until September 30 and at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 5 – 22