The Australian Ballet made an ambitious move in staging Christopher Wheeldon’s spectacularly inventive Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Following acclaimed performances around the world (including, recently, the Royal Ballet in its second iteration) Alice is the Australian Ballet’s biggest production yet, calling for all-stops-out artistic wizardry to reconjure the wit and whimsy of Lewis Carroll’s beloved classic.

A. Bull, S. Heathcote, A. Harris and A. Kondo in TAB's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
© Daniel Boud

The result is sheer delight, and the Australian Ballet’s Alice sparkles with irresistible dynamism and colour.

Performed in Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, the curtain rose on a sepia-tinted, Victorian-era Oxford, where Alice (Ako Kondo) excitedly prepares for a garden party. The real-life counterparts of the Wonderland characters are introduced, including Alice’s domineering mother (the Queen of Hearts, Amy Harris), a sympathetic Lewis Carroll (the White Rabbit, Adam Bull), and Alice’s love-interest Jack (the Knave of Hearts, an immensely likeable Ty King-Wall).  

Oxford dissolves into Wonderland, and things become curiouser and curiouser.  

Act I is magnificent fun, with Kondo’s movement superbly suggesting Alice’s dizzying shape-shifting as she size-morphs and swims the pool of tears. The caucus race allowed the corps to revel in imaginatively-costumed animal physicality, but the real highlight was the scene in the Duchess’ hellish kitchen, a Sweeney Todd burlesque of gothic horror. There, the blood-spattered Duchess (a flamboyantly-animated Ben Davis) and her Cook (Jacqueline Clark, dancing with delightful meat-cleaving mania) clashed cleavers and cooking pots with murderous relish. Luke Marchant and Lucien Xu were buoyant in this scene as the Frog and Fish.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
© Daniel Boud

Act II introduces the Cheshire Cat: a black theatre puppet whose floating body parts dispersed and reassembled eerily across the stage, prompting gasps of wonder from the audience.  Andrew Killian was magnetic in the subsequent Bollywood-inspired Caterpillar sequence, his movements steeped in a sinuous mystique that demonstrated a wonderful suppleness of spine.

 The rest of Act II suffered a slight disjointedness, with the famous Tea Party (Drew Hedditch as a tap-dancing Mad Hatter, Andrew Wright as the March Hare, and Yuumi Yamada as the Doormouse) feeling all-too-brief and surprisingly restrained. I would have liked the madness dialled up a notch. The radiantly-costumed flower dance showcased some enchanting partnering, but in this production nevertheless felt like a narrative interruption.  

Act III compensated with a doubling of energy and colour, spurred by the Knave’s impending confrontation with the Queen. The audience was whisked through a whirlwind croquet game featuring flapper-like flamingos, child hedgehogs, and a corps of slick playing cards all swiftness, precise footwork, and sharp angles. I particularly enjoyed Wheeldon’s ingenious use of moving conifers which constantly rearranged themselves in ever-shifting formations, enabling quick and dramatic switches in audience perspective akin to watching fast camerawork in films. The ballet’s climax was the wonderfully-staged courtroom scene; a fantastical, luminous set of giant playing cards presided over by Harris’ fiendish Queen.

R Nemoto, R Furnell and artists of The Australian Ballet in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
© Daniel Boud

Much attention has been given to the ballet’s production elements: namely, Bob Crowley’s stunning sets and costumes, and the clever visual projections and mechanical effects. Whilst some commentators have suggested these distract from the dancing, I consider the resulting theatrical magic – and it is magic – essential to what makes Alice such compelling ballet. Since a narrative ballet is an essentially wordless medium, it follows that more than one artistic means could be used to fully capture the mercurial, erudite vibrance of Carroll’s prose. The production wizardry accomplishes this whilst, as my non-dancer guest commented, making the work accessible to those who would not ordinarily see ballet.

Wonderland is also synonymous with memorable characters. Kondo danced Alice’s freshness and curiosity with a pleasing lightness of technique and clean lines, never losing stamina in what is a marathon role. I have always thought the dancers of the Australian Ballet have a knack for comedy, and Bull’s White Rabbit was charming fun with his lean, twitchy frame, primly cunicular tics, and impeccable comic timing. Harris’ Queen, all gleaming grimace, glinting eyes, and taut muscle, stole Act III, bringing down the house with her ‘Tart Adage’ (a cheeky nod to Petipa’s Rose Adagio). Her comic ability was matched by an assured strength and solid sense of centre, the directness of her tombés coupés jetés sequence (executed whilst wielding a blood-tipped axe overhead) being a prime example.     

Finally, it is always exciting to hear contemporary composers write for classical ballet. Joby Talbot’s eclectic score, downsized to accommodate Australian orchestra pits, was a joy of oscillating colour, wit, and cinematic shimmer. Particularly striking was Talbot’s use of rhythm, tuned percussion, and leitmotif, driving the narrative and Wheeldon’s highly musical choreography without ever being overwhelming. It is easy to see why the Talbot-Wheeldon collaborations have been so successful. The Opera Australia Orchestra performed admirably under Nicolette Fraillon’s baton, with concertmaster Huy-Nguyen Bui lending a clear, searing tension to the Queen’s Bizet-inspired tango solos.

In Wonderland, as the Hatter says, ‘it’s always tea-time’, and in this production the Australian Ballet has certainly served up a delicious sonic and visual feast.