An entertaining ride: Hong Kong Ballet in ALICE (in Wonderland)

Yuen Long Theatre, Hong Kong
August 26, 2018

Joy Wang X. Y.

The child with an overactive imagination (the sort that open up into the vistas of fantasy land) is one of ballet’s central conceits. In this sense, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is an ideal literary prototype for choreographers searching for new iterations of a timeless idiom.

Originally made for The Washington Ballet, Septime Webre’s ALICE (in Wonderland)  (愛麗絲夢遊仙境) for the Hong Kong Ballet (香港芭蕾舞團) is a vivacious, visually attractive, child-friendly romp through the subterranean hides of Victorian morality. Given a 21st-century facelift, it runs an entire spectrum of humour from the surreal to the slapstick. Webre displays a deft hand integrating elements from circus (there are suspended bicycles and an Alice that grows to gigantic height), musical theatre and quotations from traditional ballets. In one particular sequence, he offers a flamingo spoof on Swan Lake that works as both parody and homage.

It is in these moments that the company’s overall quality shines through. Xia Jun (夏俊), whose dancing has the hint of the androgynous, is a wonderfully strange dodo bird and Ye Fei Fei (葉飛飛) as Eaglet, his female counterpart, tossed of a series of very fine à la seconde turns. When at last, after two hours of intense activity, Alice curls up in her cream-white chair all angelic, Madonna like goodness it feels like the visual analogue of a wink and a tease.

Ye Feifei in ALICE (in Wonderland)Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco
Ye Feifei in ALICE (in Wonderland)
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

The problem with this ALICE though is it doesn’t feel like much more. Though its various interludes are faithful to the book, there isn’t quite a sense of movement through them, a dramatic pulse that braids together the diverse cast of characters and scenes. Instead, it sometimes feels like a dance reel set to Matthew Pierce score; a cabaret-esque series of divertissements without a unifying narrative thread.

That could be partly because of the cast I saw. Yang Ruiqi (楊睿琦, one of three casts of ALICE) is too mature a dancer to pull of Alice’s look of open-faced astonishment and, though she captures Alice’s fearlessness, she is singularly absent of vulnerability and finds less to say about Alice’s imaginative universe, that wild strip of land between illusion and reality. What feeds her curiosity? How do the wheels turn in her head? Surely, it is a special child who dreams up this visual cornucopia of fantastic beasts.

And partly it could be because Webre never quite trusts us to walk that tightrope between Disney and the Grimm brothers, between utopia and dystopia. He is almost always too quick to reassure us, that despite the presence of the Queen of Hearts (danced by the sensually commanding Wang Qingxin) this is a world free of danger. We don’t need to believe, and it certainly is not the modus operandi of children’s fantasy to make us believe, that something bad is going to happen; or to reimagine a dark interior for a familiar fable.  But sometimes we do need to believe in the potential that something bad could happen. Otherwise, it risks caricature. The lack of dramatic tension means that when the ballet reaches its epiphany, the moment. feels at once both predictable and rushed

Hong Kong Ballet in Septime Webre's ALICE (in Wonderland)Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco
Hong Kong Ballet in Septime Webre’s ALICE (in Wonderland)
Photo Conrad Dy-Liacco

In that final trial scene Alice pushes her accusers away. “At this the whole pack rose up into the air and came flying down on her Alice: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off…” as Carroll wrote. Alice, now fully awake, returns to where the ballet begun

In itself it is an elegant solution. After Carroll, Vladmir Nabakov in his brilliant and very adult Invitation to a Beheading would do something similar. But while literature and dance both offer the possibility for philosophical comment, dance has the added burden of distilling literary truths into physical movement; of conveying the inscrutable and the liminal through the visual. What might, in literature, feel like a comment on the absurd profundity of dreams, the twin dualities of waking and dreaming, can, in dance, without the proper build up feel abrupt.

This is not to say that Webre’s ALICE (in Wonderland) is unsuccessful. It succeeds in what it wants to do. With its large cast of children, it is an entertaining ride. For me, it just doesn’t do much more.