Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich
October 12, 2023
In October, the Bayerisches Staatsballett presented Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland for the first time in four years. It is a good ballet to present early in the season. The audience love its weird, dream-like story and imaginative sets that explode with colour; and it offers multiple roles to show off dancers, and opportunities for some to reveal hitherto unknown talents.
Personally, I find it an overwhelming and baffling ballet, just like Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on which it is based. It consists of so many disparate scenes, seemingly unrelated to one another. It mixes affection with violence expressed through balletic movement and slapstick. Often, the only thing that binds scenes together is the appearance of a young woman in a purple dress, who appears in all of them.
When I see the ballet, I feel like I’m zapping the TV. Here is a documentary about an unusual cat with the ability to disassemble and assemble itself. Here, one on a sausage factory, in which the people are trying to kill each other with an axe, even the baby. Then there is a tap dancer in a provincial theatre, and a card game room. They are interrupted by a story about a vengeful queen chasing a young man who apparently stole a plate of cookies, and whom she wants her executioner to kill with his axe.
Wheeldon frames Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole. The ballet opens with a family lunch in the garden of a big country house. The period costumes suggest the middle of the 19th century. All the characters, who later appear in Wonderland, are introduced. Alice is fond of Jack the gardener’s boy, and gives him a cookie. Her mother thinks he has stolen it, and to Alice’s dismay fires him. She is consoled by the family photographer, who has a conspicuous white tail showing under his jacket. It concludes with a young couple of today in front of the house, now closed up. The woman, who has been asleep on a bench, wakes up with a book in her hand. She realises that she has dreamt the whole story. They laugh about it, dance a duet, make a selfie and disappear. A photographer lingers around the house.
Laurretta Summerscale’s Alice took us from scene to scene with youthful innocence and curiosity. Having fallen through the rabbit hole, she does not shy away from eating drugged cookies and taking a drugged beverage. Perhaps this is what makes her fearlessly brave as she shrinks and expands, faces quivering walls and doors, and is hunted by an axe-swinging executioner.
Time and again, she meets the Knave of Hearts/Jack, Julian MacKay. Summerscale’s soft and somewhat restrained dancing is perfectly matched by his, which makes their duets amicably and unusually harmonious.
MacKay’s was just one of eleven role debuts. Another was Elvina Ibraimova as the Queen of Hearts/The Mother. As the Queen, she was fabulous. Full of power, anger and authority, she hurries on her fearing, knee-knocking retinue and blood-thirsty executioner in her quest to catch the Knave of Hearts with his plate of cookies. She becomes as debonair and laid back as she was remorseless in her hunt once she realises that The Knave of Hearts has been acquitted of the alleged accusation. Bored, she crosses her legs and devotes her full attention to reading a newspaper. Ibravimova was also strong and impressive in the ballet parts, and extremely funny in the slapstick, a hitherto unknown acting skill that the part allowed her to reveal.
Shale Wagman and Vladislav Kozlov also debuted as The Mad Hatter and the Caterpillar respectively. Wagman produced a fierce tap-dancing act, while Kozlov undulated around Alice with his four attendants. Ariel Merkuri, as Lewis Carroll/The White Rabbit danced wonderfully, bringing us and Alice safely from one world into the other.
The music by Jody Talbot was conducted by Myron Romanul with great empathy. Tunes evocative of the 19th century set the atmosphere, changing into soundscapes that underscore the various adventures in Wonderland. Bob Crowley’s costumes and sets are ingenious.
Alice in Wonderland is performed by four different casts, reflecting director Laurent Hilaire’s intent on showing off his dancers. With around 150 roles, not only is the entire company on stage, but also members of the Bavarian Junior Ballett Munich and students of the Ballet Academy of Munich University of Music and Performing Arts. The group scenes were quite messy with unclear formations and lines, perhaps reflecting too little rehearsal time. It doesn’t detract from what is a very entertaining ballet, however.
Alice in Wonderland is available on-demand on Staatsoper.tv for 24 hours from 9.00am (BST), October 28, 2023.
It then returns to the Bayerisches Staatsballett repertoire in March.