‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe’

There was plenty of gyring and gimbling in Septime Webre’s Alice in Wonderland, back on stage this season after its debut in 2012. Webre has a finely-tuned sense of the fey, and Alice allows full rein for all things whimsy. This is not only narrative ballet - the debt to its Victorian past acknowledged riotously in the prologue and gracefully in the alluring coda, as Alice, pointe shoes barely making contact with the floor, sits all demure with a book - it also must be, if it be worth its salt, nonsense ballet, transforming Lewis Carroll’s outrageously illogical Wonderland, with its hybrid creatures, preposterous rulers, and linguistic puns into rambustious and rambunctious physical expression. ‘Propulsive’ is the mot juste for Alice’s breathless adventures Webre’s offering paraded in just such a fashion before our dazzled eyes litanies of characters in constant motion, whirligig turns and leaps in abundance, with some witty dance slapstick thrown in for good measure.

There was plenty of family fun; in an interview, Webre admitted himself to be fully aware of the child within, and juniors of various ages were enchanting as mini doors, eaglets, piglets, Gerber daisies, junior Cards and hedgehogs. And if you are but 4 ft of pink furry feathers and are still learning your turn-out in leather ballet slippers, then you are quite irresistible as a baby flamingo. All this was joyous stuff and based on the ‘make ‘em smile, make ‘em laugh’ principle – not a bad one –which Webre was clearly milking for all it was worth.

 But this was also a revisionist Alice, belonging to an age where we have our doubts about Carroll and his other-world. There was a deliberate playing-up of adult content: flamingos straight out of any fin-de-siècle Parisian night club, male dancer , Luis Torres, in travesti as the Duchess, and a male corps de ballet. And indeed there was a great deal of corps showing.

The Washington Ballet in <i>Alice in Wonderland</i> © media4artists l Theo Kossenas
The Washington Ballet in Alice in Wonderland
© media4artists l Theo Kossenas
Morgann Rose as Queen of Hearts was quite the dominatrix, all verticals and angles, who with evil red pointe shoes – she made them positively seem like stilettos – stepped on the bare backs of her male entourage. The Cheshire Cat was rather suggestive in his pas de deux with Alice, although she, more at home with the furry little creatures, was seemingly immune. One began to wonder whether Alice had stepped into the wrong kind of fantasy (indeed the meta-pun may have been intended). In short, there were enough layers for the grown-ups to observe and the little ones (we hope) not to notice.

After a rather unpoised start, Tamako Miyazaki was a sweet and neat Alice, but lacked something of the character’s acerbity and impertinence: her stage presence was, therefore, often overwhelmed. Andile Ndlovu as the madcap White Rabbit made periodic appearances with immaculate timing and also gave us some good physical theatre as Frog. Gian Carol Perez was an impressively energetic Dodo Bird; his pas de deux with the Dormouse was the most poised, and polished paired dancing in 2 hours of otherwise disjointed vignettes. Lack of precision from the female corps was an issue -  although to an extent, disorder is endemic to Wonderland.

Owing to superb costumes (Liz Vandal), crisp, fashion-forward sets (Jim Kronzer) and trompe l’oeil effects (Diane Beaudoin gets a special credit for High Technology Fabric Transformation), the memory of the performance will be primarily visual. From the scarlet unitards of the Queen of Hearts to the flapping cardboard tutus of the playing cards (a sly inversion of the traditional tulle), and from the sight of characters suspended from the ceiling (luridly orange-haired Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee on a tandem) to the spectacle of Alice growing to an extraordinary height, her dress billowing out, and somebody else’s legs doing the footwork beneath, the production was alluring, amusing and lavishly detailed.

Matthew Pierce had a triple billing, as composer, conductor and violinist. His musical scoring was for strings and percussion only, a subtle, intimate score – a choice of refined integrity although hardly catchy, and definitely not big box-office stuff. Frankly, it would have been lost in a bigger space. Then again the Eisenhower Theater is a comparatively small venue, so the intimacy was preserved. There was little consonance, plenty of shimmery strings and mysterious meanderings, full use of made of percussive punctuation (a musical nod to the linguistic witticisms of the text) and a sly use of diverse idioms – folk, Asian, jazz, pop, disco. But it often sapped dynamism from the ballet. By act II, the sameness of its muted palette became wearing. Especially in those grand pièces de théatre, the Croquet Game, the Attack of the Jabberwocky and the Trial Scene, I can’t have been alone in yearning for something rather more dynamic and volcanic. If the Jabberwocky himself (a preposterously large prop) doesn’t deserve sfz, who does? And in the fabulously staged dénouement where Alice declares these strange wonderland creatures to be nothing but a pack of cards and everything rises into the air and comes flying down on top of her, the musical commentary was more of a whimper than a bang. Surely Pierce had another trick up his sleeve?

As for the moral of the evening, as the Duchess might have said: if you are having a fancy dress party, Vandal is your woman.