“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
The Australian Ballet
State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, September 13, 2017
It takes “layers and layers of tulle together in a honeycomb construction that opens up when it closes”1 to make a tail that befits a White Rabbit. It takes countless hours (of drafting, devising, twinkling, rehearsing, measuring, stitching, and repeating thrice) to create a world of nonsense in every sense and this is as it should be.
Give me Alice stretched tall, penning directions for her presents to her feet now located so very far away: “Alice’s Right Foot, Esq. Hearthrug, near the Fender (with Alice’s love).” And a pool of salty tears to swim in, splish, splash, alongside a mouse: “Oh, I beg your pardon! …. I quite forgot you didn’t like cats.” A Dormouse in a patchwork dressing gown trembling right to the tip of their tail, if you please. A hedgehog for a croquet ball as well, if you’re offering. Give me bejewelled, fast tinkling and light pointed feet upon slinky Caterpillars of allurement. I’ll take it all. Jellies, frilled bloomers, and a paper boat for a vessel in which to sail gently down the river. The tea sets found within large cupcakes, the floating rotations of a giant Cheshire Cat of separate parts, and all things “curiouser and curiouser.” A three-act ballet, dreamed, moulded, and made fantastical by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in 2011 for the Royal Ballet has been brought to life by the Australian Ballet in 2017, and I couldn’t be happier. In a world that feels increasingly driven by greed and meanness, this bright diversion is the tonic I crave.2 Perhaps you too.
So let us go down, down, down the rabbit hole, in costumes designed by Sukie Kirk. In silk taffeta, foam, and wigged, I ask only that mine sports a tail. Come as a walrus, a Duchess. Come as Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle (in the 1933 film adaptation). Heck, come as the lead.
The original Alice was Alice Liddel. She was ten at the time Lewis Carroll amused her with a tale of adventures underground. In history’s collective memory, she is the assured girl staring at the photographer (Carroll) in role of Beggar Girl (then aged 7). A muse in the form of a girl who requested Carroll pen the adventures he had regaled her with. And write them down he did, adding the famous grinning Cheshire Cat and a tea party with a Mad Hatter, March Hare, and sleepy Dormouse for good measure, and thus plumping, amending, growing an absurd amusement into what would become a classic. A classic where those who best adapt are those who accept new laws of logic. Live Flamingos are croquet bats. And those aforementioned Hedgehogs are balls (performed by young children in soft-spiked backpacks, and all adorable). Babies are piglets; mind the mincer. Roses can be (should be, declared the Queen of Hearts) painted red. Violets need not be violet. But, of violet as a hue, let’s dress the other original Alice, Lauren Cuthbertson of the Royal Ballet. A special guest performing two nights during the Melbourne season, Cuthbertson has performed the role of Alice since 2011. She was Wheeldon’s original Alice, like Liddel was to Carroll, and she was responsible for creating the part. To see her in this role on Wednesday night is an indescribable joy. She inhabits every inch of the role, from extended fingertips to light pointe play. And amid all of the wordplay transformed into theatrical might, she is utterly hypnotic, with Christopher Rodgers-Wilson’s Knave of Hearts beautifully smitten.
With her brown hair bobbed, like Alice Liddel, Cuthbertson has returned Alice to (perhaps) her truest form. She no longer recalls John Tenniel’s original illustrations of a long-haired Alice with an overlarge head. And she has nothing to do with the Disney musical of 1951, blonde and in blue. Cuthbertson’s Alice knows the rules on the other side of the looking glass. The rules one might adhere to ‘aboveground’ do not apply here: take the mushroom. Whether nonsensical or otherwise, she deciphers the rules and applies them, growing accordingly. When you take away the preconceptions of how things should operate, every tick-tock of Alice’s extended leg backwards and forwards is a philosophers’ dream. Cuthbertson’s Alice embraces new reality on its own terms in a playful, off-kilter world, and jumps on a sponge cake (with an inbuilt trampoline). She throws herself with abandon, safe in the knowledge she’ll be caught, and her legs make perfect right angles, mid-air. Rules to live by, above- or underground.
Cuthbertson’s Alice knows the rules on the other side of the looking glass.
Letters swirl, and in this ballet, I’ve fallen into the book (as opposed to the book’s characters tumbling onto the stage). The journey is as fast as it is colourful, through Joby Talbot’s melodic invention, describing the distinctive movements of each curious character. From the Ant Hill Mob knees-up, knees-up walk on high demi pointe of the Hatter, Hare and Doormouse to arms like those spinning on a clock-face, there can be little doubt I am being drawn into the world of Alice. This is a celebration of spectacle. Light and sprite, percussive Jarryd Madden’s Mad Tapper not Hatter tips his “ten shillings and sixpence” hat at Busby Berkeley’s musical formations, and flowers fall from above. A kaleidoscopic flower waltz with all its old Hollywood memories bursts into the theatre, literally, in Wheeldon’s quick-as-you-can scene changes.
Of doffing one’s hat, Adam Bull’s White Rabbit brings a delicious touch of the macabre. Wearing rose coloured glasses (or is that Myxoatosis red?), shades of Jan Švankmajer’s taxidermied rabbit in his film version of Alice (1988) and her encounters. Bull, in his red coat, twitching, is but a hop from Švankmajer’s stop-motion character chewing the nails from their display case fixings with a clack-clack of the teeth, and pulling a pocket watch from their sawdust-filled chest. As a rabbit, and not a customary prince, Bull is the epitome of sparkling fantasy as the new logic. As he leaps across the stage, hither and thither, he is unreal and yet super-real, surreal.
The art of illusion, from the brilliant manner in which Alice appears to shrink and grow large to the puppetry of the disappearing, reappearing Cheshire Cat with a wayward, inquisitive tail, all makes for a visual feast. From the devastatingly simple to the gloriously overblown, all parts, like said Cat, working to make a whole. Seeking, like all illusionists do, to upend my senses, I never know where to look and I don’t want to miss a thing. Nicola Curry is an outrageous Queen of (high strung) Hearts, roaring her way through Wonderland, later eating up her Tart Adage. Comedic timing in splits: glorious! Andrew Killian, the seductive Caterpillar, a rhythmical ripple of enticement, a jewelled slinky.
Gobble, gobble, snicker-snack, I’ll take it all. Butter my pocket watch, and paint my hand like the head of a flamingo.
- Senior Gentleman’s Cutter, Marsia Bergh, in conversation with Kate Scott, “Making Wonderland,” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland programme, The Australian Ballet, State Theatre, Melbourne, 2017, 22
- In the midst of Australia’s Marriage Equality Postal Plebiscite, for the opening night curtain call on Tuesday the 12th of September, the Australian Ballet waved their YES posters and heart-shaped balloons to a standing ovation. “We support equal rights for all Australians. And so we say, “YES” to marriage equality because we believe that love is love”, artistic director David McAllister said in a post-performance statement.