Monday, January 21, 2013

Theater Review: The National Ballet of Canada's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'

Location: The Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC

Website: Official National Ballet of Canada site

Starring: The company from the National Ballet of Canada

My Review: I admittedly know very little about ballet beyond what I learned in dance classes I attended as a child (where it was less about skill and more about looking cute in a tutu), but just as with graphic art (another art form I have little formal education in), I know what I like when I see it. And the National Ballet of Canada's production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is something I liked very much.

Alice in Wonderland has long been one of my favorite stories, from Lewis Carroll's original book, to the Disney animated classic, to the bizarre '80s mini-series (that made me one of the few first-graders who knew who Red Buttons and Imogene Coca were), to Melanie Benjamin's recent novel, Alice I Have Been. When I first saw that the Kennedy Center would be presenting this new ballet version of Alice, I wondered why it hadn't been done before. Being such a lively, episodic, and whimsical tale, it seems to naturally lend itself to a dance performance.

Luckily, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon saw this potential and crafted this new and exciting Alice. Using a brilliantly creative combination of animated screens, puppetry, breathtaking scenery, and extremely talented dancers, Wheeldon takes you on Alice's familiar journey, but in a way that manages to feel brand new.

Clocking in at almost three hours long (with two intermissions), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland could be a tedious exercise in sitting still (especially considering how the production is likely to appeal to children). But each scene moves along at a steady, quick pace, and there's always so much to take in on stage that the length isn't even noticeable until you check your watch on the way out.

One of the key reasons that I've had less exposure to ballet than other performing arts is that I find featured dance solos to often drag on for too long. I fully support giving each principal dancer their moment to shine, but I often wish they would shine for about the half the time they take. In Alice, this is never an issue. Each solo dance is just the right length, and is energetic enough to hold your attention until the end.

I was also delighted to see that ballet could actually be funny. A lot can be communicated through dance, but it's rare that I've seen an audience burst into laughter at a dance routine that isn't accompanied by a comical show tune. The Mad Hatter's tea party is a colorful tap dance routine that is periodically interrupted by a suddenly narcoleptic Dormouse. The caucus race is completed in dramatic slow-motion. And in a highlight of the evening, the Queen of Hearts is a high-strung hostess forcing all of her reluctant servants to join her in a dance that only she thinks is worthy of performing.

Bottom Line: As my first big theatrical experience since relocating from NYC to DC, I don't think I could have chosen better than both going to the Kennedy Center and seeing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. If you're lucky enough to have this production come to a stage near you, I highly recommend purchasing tickets, even if you don't consider yourself a "ballet fan."


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