Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” now more than 150 years old, has been analyzed on deeper levels than we usually see in the many Hollywood recreations of the curious girl and the fantastical creatures she meets in that story and its follow-up, “Through the Looking Glass.”
Fundamentally, it is a love letter to the power of books and imagination, since the first paragraph has Alice dumbfounded that her sister’s book has no pictures or conversations in it. “What is the use of a book” without those, she wonders.
Ben Stevenson has taken the idea of “pictures and conversations” to heart in his ballet “Alice in Wonderland,” which he premiered in 1992 for Houston Grand Ballet, and has done twice in his time at Texas Ballet Theater. First in 2007, then in the production that opened last weekend in Bass Hall. It repeats at Dallas’ Winspear Opera House on June 2-4.
Using the “Alice” music composed by Joseph Horovitz in 1953 for the London Festival Ballet, Stevenson stages images and scenes from the Carroll book, greatly helped with original costumes by Nadine Baylis that brilliantly render John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations from page to stage.
The hats, such as the Cook’s voluminous toque and the Duchess’ and Queen of Heart’s headwear, are particularly special. (Scenic design is also by Baylis.)
As a ballet, it’s a curious beast. Alice (Carolyn Judson; Alexandra Farber and Michelle Taylor play it at other performance) starts off on the river bank, reading. Aloud. It’s one of four times in the 90-minute work in which Alice speaks — a rarity in ballet. (The dancers were helped by dialogue coach Brandon Smith.)
What follows is many of the well-known scenes, such as the Caucus-Race with its assortment of creatures (unicorn, zebra, ram, etc.); the Duchess’ kitchen; the tea party with the Mad Hatter (Alexander Kotelenets), March Hare (Carl Coomer) and Dormouse (Allisyn Hsieh Caro); and the final courtroom with the beheading-happy Queen of Hearts (amusingly played in drag by basketball-tall Paul Adams).
Two major characters, the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, and notable scenes like the pool of tears, are missing. But most of the other creations are here, from the White Rabbit (Andre Silva), Dodo Bird (Alex Danna) and Cheshire Cat (Brett Young) to the Frog-Footmen, the Whiting (a fish) and a Snail.
The choreography isn’t complicated — it’s more about moving stage pictures of Lewis’ descriptions and Tenniel’s illustrations, such as when the Mad Hatter and March Hare pick up the Dormouse and put its head in the teapot. The Caterpillar (David Schrenk) shares his pipe and cleverly inchworms off the stage, and the pig baby is thrown about.
Most memorable is the story of Father William (Shane Howell) and his Son (Dustin Geradine) narrated by Alice. William stands on his head and balances an eel on his nose, and Judson was particularly animated in her reading of this story. She also delightfully recites the Lobster Quadrille poem (“Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”) as eight lobsters dance, and maintains a credible British accent.
Those looking for ballet flash finally get it in Act 2 when Stevenson throws in a pas de deux, followed by solo showboating between a Tiger Lily (Leticia Oliveira) and the Gardener (Jiyan Dai). The Tiger Lily is from “Looking Glass,” but it fits to give the audience fouettes and traveling jumps. Oliveira and Dai were stunning in the May 19 performance.
Michael Moricz conducts the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, always in balance with the action and shifting the volume when Alice speaks — a skill more often used with musical theater than ballet music.
Is the speaking necessary? Probably not, as there is plenty of successful pantomime in the work, such as when the White Rabbit points to his pocket watch to indicate he’s late. But the oddity of dialogue (and singing by the company at one point) somehow fits in with one of the most imaginative and fantastical of tales. “Story ballet” never felt as meaningful.
When Alice closes with “and now the tale is done” and the Rabbit pops back down the hole, smiling is unavoidable.