His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, November 21.
Septime Webre’s ALICE (in wonderland) was made in 2012 for Washington Ballet, where he was artistic director from 1999 to 2016, and shortly after was snapped up by a host of regional American ballet companies. Hong Kong Ballet, which Webre now leads, staged ALICE last year. Now West Australian Ballet has dived down the rabbit hole.
WAB likes to end the year with a ballet suitable for young audiences but has resisted an annual Nutcracker, opting to stage it every second year. ALICE hits the spot as an family-friendly alternative, and how. It’s a visual extravaganza in all departments – Liz Vandal’s witty, sumptuous costumes are a knockout – and Webre pours out endless streams of lively, inventive choreography dispatched with easy charm by WAB.
Webre enjoyably throws just about everything at the wall and just about everything sticks. Tweedledum and Tweedledee float through the air on their bicycle built for two, the Caterpillar turns into a gorgeous butterfly and Alice grows so tall she nearly disappears beyond the audience’s view. Dodo and Eaglet entertain with an abbreviated, wacky version of a big classical ballet. The Cheshire Cat not only gets close and smoochy with Alice but proves a dab hand at complicated partnering. The Mad Hatter is a turbo-charged explosion in a paint factory and the White Rabbit twinkly-eyed and twitchy as he dashes in and out of the mayhem.
Crucially, it doesn’t matter if there’s close familiarity with the source material or not. It’s enough to know that a bookish young girl has entered a world of wild imagination in which anything may happen, and does at dizzying speed. Those who do know a little something, however, will find extra enjoyment. There’s a brief scene, for instance, in which Alice and Lewis Carroll take a little boat ride – a reference to the day in July 1862 when Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) invented surreal adventures to entertain Alice Liddell and her sisters as they went rowing on the Isis near Oxford.
Children will delight in the technical wizardry and super-saturated colour palette but Webre also smartly gives a nod and wink to the adult audience. Let’s put it this way: the Queen of Hearts is probably up to no good with her bare-chested retinue of young men and the Cheshire Cat is a rather sexy beast. His growling, purring music is huge fun.
Matthew Pierce first wrote his specially commissioned score for strings and percussion only, given the small forces at his disposal. The music was later fully orchestrated for Oregon State Ballet and has been further revised for WAB. Jessica Gethin and the West Australian Philharmonic Orchestra gave it a cracking performance on opening night.
Not surprisingly, the full-orchestra version is Webre’s preferred option (although it’s one not available to many small US companies). Interesting percussion accents and colours are still an arresting feature of the score but it also now has the shine and weight of brass and the gorgeous sonorities of wind instruments. It’s invigorating writing that illuminates the storytelling at every moment.
But no matter how lovely the music, or how spectacular the effect of Vandal’s costumes, James Kronzer’s sets, Clifton Taylor’s lighting and Eric Van Wyk’s puppetry, there is no show without Alice. She is onstage a lot and is the connecting tissue in a piece that darts from one thing to the next like a humming bird. WAB principal artist Chihiro Nomura was a sparky, animated opening-night Alice, her face beautifully expressive. It was good to see her in a new light; Nomura can seem a little too restrained at times. Much is asked of Alice and Nomura delivered with effervescent acting and seamless integration of Webre’s classical/contemporary movement mix. And she has to fly. Hats off.
WAB is a medium-sized company of 35 dancers (including six young artists) but looks big and bold here. There are splendid parts for a great many dancers, all of whom made opening night go off like a rocket. Juan Carlos Osma’s jaunty Mad Hatter, Julio Blanes’s bouncy White Rabbit and Matthew Lehmann’s insinuating Cheshire Cat were all strongly individual while Alexa Tuzil negotiated the Caterpillar’s seriously twisty choreography with calm poise.
Webre’s mini ballet in the middle of the first act is a touch too long but gives the hard-working Alice some off-stage time and the audience a taste of strong classical technique. And it is undeniably fun in its allusions to the second act of Swan Lake, with flamingos standing in for swans. There’s even a quartet, with Pierce briefly but unmistakably quoting Tchaikovsky’s cygnets music. Oscar Valdés (Dodo) and Dayana Hardy Acuña (Eaglet) were the stars of this show within a show and they were on fire. Valdés also had to back up in the second act as the virtuosic Joker (as in the pack of cards), dancing up a storm and looking most rakish with his soul patch.
As for the well-schooled, shiny-eyed children playing flamingo chicks, tiny playing cards, piglets, baby hedgehogs, and more, bravi. Bravissimi. Adorable.
Ends December 15.