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English National Ballet

'Alice in Wonderland'

by David Mead

March 5, 2009 -- Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Culture Centre

English National Ballet’s production of “Alice”, first seen in 1995, certainly brings Lewis Carroll’s characters to life.  They are all here, the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Mock Turtle, Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts, and many more, brought to life through Derek Deane’s choreography, Paul Kieve’s illusions, and Sue Blaine’s outstanding costumes based on the Tenniel pictures in the original book.

The ballet is visually very appealing.  The sets too are mostly quite superb.  Best of all is that for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, which includes giant sunflowers, outsize ears of corn, and an enormous teapot that pours tea on its own.  This makes it all the more odd that the scene where Alice follows the White Rabbit down his rabbit hole is so poorly done with a plethora of panels flying in and out.

As befits a family ballet, comedy is to the fore with any darkness in the Carroll story downplayed to the extent that it almost disappears altogether.  With many of the costumes including full face masks, the dancers did a sterling job communicating that humour.  Petro Lapetra’s White Rabbit was particularly delightful, fussy, playful, and in constant motion.  Other notable mentions must go to James Streeter’s Mad Hatter; Laurent Liotardo’s drugged-up, hookah-smoking Caterpillar; and Michael Coleman’s hectoring, gossiping Duchess, who owed much to Ashton’s Ugly Sisters.

Fernanda Oliveira was very childlike as Alice, but there was a little too much smiling, each character she met being greeted and treated in pretty much the same manner.  There was, for example, absolutely no suggestion of her being upset by the Duchess’ rough treatment of the pig, or being frightened by the Queen of Hearts.  But there again, while Jenna Lee’s Queen may have been glamorous, scary was not a description that sprang to mind.

Like the book, the ballet is episodic, but Deane does well to merge each scene with the next.  He has taken some liberties and has invented some set pieces for the corps, the first of which, for two tiger lilies and a group of pansies (yes, really!) in the Garden of Living Flowers is totally extraneous to the narrative.  This could be one of several references to The Nutcracker, although the others are rather more explicit.  The transformation scene, and the music that accompanies it, bears a striking resemblance to the one in that ballet, with the White Rabbit taking the same guiding role as Drosselmeyer.  The Caterpillar’s solo, meanwhile, is danced to a parody of the Arabian Dance.

It is just as well Deane has invented those set pieces, since, while there is plenty of action, the biggest issue with the ballet is the lack of dancing.  What dancing there is draws on a wide range of styles.  The classical set piece for the Living Flowers is distinctly ‘after Petipa’, while the group dance for the Hearts has a much more modern feel.  The pas de deux for the Dream Alice and the Knave of Hearts is rather romantic in style and never reaches any sort of climax.

Carl Davis’ collage of multiple excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Album for the Young”, along with selections from others of his pieces, also works remarkably well.  Such a score does mean there is an absence of leitmotifs for the principal characters.  Davis’ choice of composer also left one wondering whether it really was impossible to find suitable music by an English composer for what is essentially a very English ballet.

But when we get down to it, do all these issues matter?  From the reaction of the Hong Kong audience, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.  “Alice” is not deeply meaningful and was never meant to be.  It is good old-fashioned light entertainment for the whole family, well-presented and well-performed.  It pretends to be nothing else.  And who could argue with that?

The Hong Kong Sinfonietta, conducted by Timothy Carey, gave an excellent rendition of Carl Davis’ patchwork Tchaikovsky.

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