Navigating growing up: Jasmin Vardimon Company in ALiCE

Sadler’s Wells, London
October 28, 2022

Part way through Jasmin Vardimon’s new ALiCE, there’s a visceral, pulsating sequence to Micky Modelle’s ‘Alice (Who the f… is?)’, itself a reworking of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman’s ‘Living Next Door to Alice’ that was a huge hit for Smokie in 1995. Performed by no fewer than seven Alices, it bounces back and forth across the stage and, while it adds little to the narrative, is by far the most thrilling, most memorable dance in the work.

Carroll’s story can seem like a simple children’s fantasy fairy-tale, the story of a young girl’s journey into a magical world. It is often presented as such. The reality is that it is much deeper. The events and themes the book contains correlate with the steps as someone moves from childhood to adolescence. It’s about coming to terms with growing up. As Alice tries to find her place in the strange grown-up world, it’s about her search for identity and understanding of the very bewildering place she finds herself.

Evelyn Hart as Alice
Photo Tristram Kenton

In Chinn and Chapman’s song, the singer is heartbroken because Alice is moving away. In Vardimon’s work, it’s not a huge leap to read it as an expression of the Alice leaving the girl that was as she becomes the woman that will soon be. It’s a time of confusion, the question in the song’s title recalling the moment in Lewis Carroll’s book when the Caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?” Alice barely stammers her reply, “I… hardly know.”

That’s precisely where Vardimon comes in, her work bringing together dance that fuses contemporary with hip hop, written and spoken word, digital projections, one of the most eclectic soundtracks you will ever hear, and Guy Bar-Amotz’s most marvellous set.

Juliette Tellier as the Cheshire Cat with Evelyn Hart as Alice
in Jasmin Vardimon’s ALiCE
Photo Tristram Kenton

That set, in the form of a huge rotating book whose pages turn, looms above everything, trapping Alice in its world. Digital projections onto its blank pages allow the work to easily move locations. Having stepped out of a drawing that is her digital self, Evie Hart as Alice flips between the pages, between moments of light and shadow, between utter joyfulness and total puzzlement, as she tries to get a handle on who she is.

Just like Carroll’s Alice, all the things that Vardimon’s experiences are her fears and desires distorted one way or another. This Alice goes through a door rather than down a rabbit hole. The way she’s pulled through rather reluctantly suggests she knows she is in the process of saying goodbye to childhood although she doesn’t really want to leave. But time, an ever-present theme in ALiCE, always wins, and go we all must.

Hobie Schouppe as the Mad Hatter with Evelyn Hart as Alice
Photo Tristram Kenton

Over the work’s six chapters and eighty minutes, Alice runs across all the expected characters, although some leave more of an impression than others. The caterpillar pops up regularly, often just watching as sits precariously on to the top of the book. One of the more meaningful early meetings is with the Cheshire Cat (Juliette Tellier), who points out that the path you take, depends on where you want to go.

Donny Beau Ferris is a very panicked, anxious and unsure White Rabbit, although his lack of a watch meant it took a few minutes to work out that was who he was supposed to be. But his frantic dance certainly paints a picture of someone always in a rush, always late, to the point where he confuses and stresses himself even more.

Sabrina Gargano (centre) as the Red Queen in ALiCE
Photo Tristram Kenton

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is innovatively reimagined with the table now vertical, the host sat several metres above the floor at its head. But it is all over very quickly and feels like an opportunity missed.

Best of the well-known scenes is the croquet game. It’s quite brilliantly reimagined using long pink gloves to recreate the flamingos that are the mallets and a flunky instead of a live hedgehog for the ball. There’s no sign of soldiers doubling themselves up and standing on their hands and feet, to make the arches, though!

Tweedledum and Tweedledee come across as unpleasant, menacing individuals, one of whom Alice flirts with in a cleverly staged duet that shows a loving relationship on one side of a wall that verges on romantic fantasy, and a fractious, quite violent one on the other. Another reflection on the innocence of childhood versus the reality of adulthood? At least as seen by Vardimon.

Evelyn Hart as Alice
Photo Tristram Kenton

The cat-suited Sabrina Gargano plays the Red Queen as domineering and slightly wild, if not especially monstrous. There’s more red in an earlier scene featuring a string of red rags that presumably refers to the onset of periods.

Innocent girl on a fantasy adventure through Wonderland or someone becoming an adult and treading the awkward path towards that other wonderland that is the adult world? Probably a bit of both, the blurring between them meaning that neither is explored as much as it perhaps could be. But there can be no arguing that ALiCE is a visual treat and the dancing really is fantastic, even if nothing is quite what it seems, and even if it left me not really any the wiser about who Alice is. I suspect she’s not sure yet either.