Sunday 15 April 2012

Alice in Wonderland

To Covent Garden on Friday for Christopher Weeldon's ballet, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with a score by Joby Talbot.

New full length ballets have always been scarce at the Royal Ballet and in the last few decades have become increasingly rare. Frederick Ashton did only three (Ondine, Sylvia and Cinderella) plus the 2 act La fille mal gardee; he also did Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Danish Ballet. Kenneth MacMillan did 6,  Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling, ManonAnastasia, The Prince of the Pagodas and Isadora. Twyla Tharp did a full length ballet for the in the 90's and David Bintley did his first version of Cyrano de Bergerac. And that, is I think, just about the total sum since the war.

Of these only Ondine,  Isadora and Cyrano de Bergerac had commissioned scores. Ashton used existing scores for his remaining ballets and MacMillan came to rely on scores assembled. Mayerling uses the music of Liszt,  Anastasia uses Tchaikvovsky symphonies (plus a commissioned score for the last act, which was written first as a one-act ballet), Manon uses a patchwork of Massenet. Ashton's relationship with the Henze score for Ondine was not completely trouble free, but the score is one of the few modern masterpieces of the genre and deservedly iconic in its own right.

MacMillan's one commissioned score, from Richard Rodney Bennett for Isadora, was hardly typical because of MacMillan's decision to use an actress as well as a dancer to play Isadora so that the final work is an amalgam of music, speech and dance which is remarkable, but doesn't quite work. Efforts to create a single act fully danced piece from it, subsequent to MacMillan's death, have not really succeeded.

It is David Bintley who has created a significant number of full length ballets and commissioned some very significant scores, especially since his move to the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Paul Reade's scores for Hobson's Choice and Far from the Madding Crowd are brilliantly realised in a populist vein, whilst Edward II uses a score by John McCabe which continues the Henze tradition of lyrical modernist brilliance. In fact Edward II was commissioned by the Stuttgart Ballet and only mounted in England in 1998, 3 years after its premiere, once Bintley was in charge BRB. (Stuttgart had commissioned a number of MacMillan's significant one-act ballets, such as Requiem and Song of the Earth and he had difficulty getting them mounted at the Royal Ballet.) Bintley has gone on to work with McCabe again on the two full length Arthur ballets.

And what of Alice? Well, it brilliantly does what it was set out to do, entertain. The set pieces such as the tap dancing Mad Hatter at the tea party, the Indian caterpillar, the Red Queen's croquet match and the delightfully scary Red Queen dancing a tango; all these work superbly well and are firmly in the English tradition of character dances. The waltz sequence for the Flowers is beautifully done and clearly in the Ashton/MacMillan vein.

Wheeldon and Talbot deliberately do not mine the vein of dark, sexuality in the story. There are no particular undercurrents such as MacMillan might have picked on. The Red Queen, for instance, is done as an essentially scary, comic version of the Red Queen from Ninette de Valois's Checkmate, but without that character's threatening sexual aura; Wheeldon and Talbot's ballet is curiously sexless.

They have introduced a relationship between Alice and the Jack who stole the tarts, and Alice's adventure becomes, to a certain extent, a pursuit of Jack and a discovery of her adult sexuality. So far, so Freud and MacMillan. But the scenes with Jack, a couple of extended pas de deux sequences do no engage properly. They neither tug at the heart strings the way Ashton was able to do, nor do they pursue troubled psycho-sexual depth the way MacMillan did. Bintley has shown himself as being able to skate between these two and produce works which have a significant depth. But here, Wheeldon and Talbot seem to be content to skate along the surface of the story.

Talbot's score is written for an orchestra with a huge amount of percussion, much of it tuned; I don't think I have ever seen quite such a big percussion department in a ballet. And the score is entertaining and effective and beautifully done. I suspect that if I sat down to listen to it as a concert piece I would enjoy it immensely.

The performance we saw had many of the original cast with Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice, Federico Bonelli as Jack, Edward Watson as the White Rabbit, Laura Morera as the Queen of Hearts, Steven McRae as the Mad Hatter and Fernando Montano as the Caterpillar. It was superbly dance, with bravura, commitment  and a strong vein of lyrical story telling. The audience, many of them young, loved it.

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