Our first memories of "Alice in Wonderland" are inevitably mixed with recollections of our childhoods, the time when we discovered Lewis Carroll's book and so much else. It is this nostalgia for multiple pasts--fictional and personal--that choreographer Glen Tetley investigates in his deeply persuasive, neo-Romantic ballet "Alice" for National Ballet of Canada.
The company gave the West Coast premiere of this hourlong 1986 work Saturday afternoon in Civic Theatre. Performances in Pasadena and Costa Mesa are scheduled in the next two weeks.
In "Alice" the person remembering Wonderland is the Alice who inspired the book: Alice Hargreaves, depicted as a young married woman. As she looks back on the day in 1862 when a family friend improvised a fairy tale for her, about her, she unleashes a flood of vivid, overlapping images. The incidents of the book, her girlish fantasies about the author, the man she married, all co-exist in the same time and place.
She begins to glimpse causalities, to deal with childhood yearnings that shaped her needs as an adult. And, at the end, she is suddenly an old woman, still reaching back into the past for something unrecapturable.
Clearly, "Alice" is a ballet about wanting what you can no longer have--and that includes lost youth. Just as clearly, it is not merely a dance version of "Alice in Wonderland" but something far richer.
Tetley assumes that we have the "Alice" books in our collective unconscious, that they function for our culture rather like "The Ramayana" in South Asia. Thus, without explaining anything in pantomime, he calls up quick, potent Wonderland allusions--aided by the wonderful emblematic costumes of Nadine Baylis.
In a kind of Jungian divertissement, Tetley evokes the Ugly Duchess' fight with the Cook, the Mad Hatter's tea party, Alice's confrontation with the Queen of Hearts and more--all from "Alice in Wonderland," though his concept of time and use of mirror motifs come from "Through the Looking Glass."
There are two ballerina roles: Child Alice and Alice Hargreaves. There is also that final appearance by Aged Alice and a corps of Little Alices. But the most sustained use of mirroring occurs in the intense double duets where Alice Hargreaves dances with her husband, and Child Alice with Lewis Carroll. Here the reflections of choreographic patterns show us present and past interacting and make what-might-have-been seem as vivid as what actually happened.
Although "Alice" never quite pulls together at the end (despite its endearing final coup de theatre , and Baylis' flat, toy-theater-style scenery proves a disappointment, the ballet's biggest problem is its music: David Del Tredici's overblown, repetitive "Child Alice Part I: In Memory of a Summer Day."
A setting for soprano and orchestra of Carroll's elegiac prefatory poem to "Through the Looking Glass," the score establishes many key concepts that Tetley develops, but it also saddles him with pages of bombast that even the careening anarchy of the Wonderland sequences can't camouflage.
Ironically, the principal dancers Saturday afternoon represented Tetley's looking-glass cast, the second dancers, in most cases, to portray these roles. No matter: This was a performance confirming the reports of all the gorgeous stars-in-the-making to emerge recently in Toronto.
Sabina Allemann is one of the great beauties of the dance world, but her interpretation of Child Alice went beyond prettiness to achieve remarkable moment-to-moment conviction matched by consistent technical daring. Peter Ottmann danced Carroll with extraordinary tenderness and intelligence. Martine Lamy looked promising but occasionally tentative in her first performance as Alice Hargreaves. In the dual role of her husband and the Caterpillar, Anthony Randazzo had both presence and security.
National Ballet of Canada's exemplary character-dance training helped focus the chaotic Wonderland scenes with sharply honed cameos: Raymond Smith (a teasing White Rabbit), Jacques Gorrissen (a brutal Ugly Duchess), Serge Lavoie (a noble Gryphon), David Peden (a raunchy March Hare), etc.
Joanne Kolmejec (strangely miked) sang Del Tredici's florid score expertly and Ermanno Florio conducted with maximum force and clarity.
As a curtain-raiser, the Canadians presented a fine production (staged by Rosemary Dunleavy) of George Balanchine's familiar masterwork "The Four Temperaments." All the fabulous eccentricities of the choreography were boldly projected, and some of the soloists--Jeremy Ransom in the Melancholic variation, for instance--got inside the movement magnificently. This is quite a company.