Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland entered the repertoire of National Ballet of Japan in 2018 (a co-production with Australian Ballet), and became a box office success for the company. This year, it made its long-awaited return, with all ten performances almost sold out and with two more performances outside Tokyo.

Takafumi Watanabe (The Knave of Hearts) and Yui Yonezawa (Alice)
© Kiyonori Hasegawa | Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © by Christopher Wheeldon

The ballet has some flaws, such as the non-coherent plot (although faithful to the original Lewis Carroll story): Alice keeps on encountering strange creatures and no character has much depth, and there are few memorable duets. But the production (designed by Bob Crowley) is just dazzling and magical, sweeping the audience into a vividly colourful, adventurous world. The effective video projections which let Alice fall through the rabbit hole and shrinks her size, the giant Cheshire Cat manipulated by Japanese-style puppeteers, and the courtroom scene carefully constructed by playing cards. Technology and art meet in an excellent marriage here.

Many freakish but attractive characters appear, the tap-dancing Mad Hatter, the exotic Caterpillar, March Hare, Frog and Fish and Duchess, Cook and an outrageous Queen of Hearts who are all reflections of the real-life people in Alice’s world. 

The role of Alice is a demanding one, hardly off-stage during all three acts. The choreography is difficult, with lots of off-balance poses and a lot of duets. Opening night Alice Yui Yonezawa played the role with a natural approach, existing on the stage as the curious Alice herself, while dancing with pure clarity, elegance and excellent musicality. Alice shrinks and expands, races with strange animals, swims into a sea of tears, runs through the chaotic kitchen where a baby transforms into a pig and the hysterical cook manufactures sausages while flinging her knife. Alice's sweetheart, Jack, who transforms into the Knave of Hearts, is danced by Takafumi Watanabe. It is not a rewarding role but Watanabe partnered Yonezawa well, his boy-next-door character a good match and with a few opportunities to show his virtuoso technique.

Yuko Masuda (The Queen of Hearts)
© Kiyonori Hasegawa | Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © by Christopher Wheeldon

The most outstanding role is the bizarre, psychotic Queen of Hearts, constantly yelling “Off with your head!”, appearing in a huge volumed costume. She dances a parody of the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty – the so-called “Tart Adagio” – where she is partnered by terrified servants instead of princes. Yuko Masuda played the role hilariously, with rubber-like facial expressions which made one of the climaxes of the ballet. Another show-stopper was the tap-dancing Mad Hatter, flamboyantly danced with rhythmical footwork by Jarryd Madden (guesting from Australian Ballet). Later in the run, the original Mad Hatter, Steven McRae of Royal Ballet, is scheduled to appear. Yoshito Kinoshita played the dual role of Lewis Carroll and the White Rabbit who leads Alice into her adventures with wit and charm. Japanese dancers are often considered great in technique but not so much in acting, given their rather shy nature, but this ballet was an excellent vehicle to develop character expression.

Yoshito Kinoshita (The White Rabbit)
© Kiyonori Hasegawa | Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland © by Christopher Wheeldon

The joyful Waltz of the Flowers, the funny gardener’s trio, and the stylish ensemble of playing cards are entertaining feasts for the eye, clad in brilliant costumes. Wheeldon’s choreography seems to be more successful in the corps de ballet structure, as well as Joby Talbot’s memorable melodies and rhythms in these scenes.

Talbot's colourful score, with a total of 43 types of percussions along with electric sound effects and exotic instruments such as the Lion’s Roar, Darbuka and Lamb’s Horn, creates the magical and sometimes chaotic atmospheres which last long in the audience’s ears. Nathan Brock conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra excellently for this spectacular production.