The search for a warm-weather “Nutcracker” continues with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Christopher Wheeldon’s three-act dance fantasy, which the National Ballet of Canada brought to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday in its U.S. premiere, beginning a five-performance run.
Like the Russian Christmas classic, the new work (co-commissioned by Britain’s Royal Ballet) begins at a party for adults, involves its child-heroine in dreamlike changes of scale and battles with bizarre adversaries but also contains such formal divertissements as a Waltz of the Flowers and an Arabian Dance.
Sounds perfect for kiddies and their grandmas, except it’s nearly twice “Nutcracker’s” length (just under three hours) and is even more incoherent as a narrative than most “Nutcracker” productions
The opening scene seems to place Alice in a real 19th century environment from which she soon takes flight in fantasy. But an epilogue confirms that we are in her dream right from the start, and, along the way, as antic, hard-sell episodes pile up, only a few sequences make a strong effect -- notably a clever treatment of the Cheshire Cat (eight dancers manipulating oversized feline body parts) and a crude but effective parody of the Rose Adagio for the Queen of Hearts.
To its credit, Joby Talbot’s original score keeps delivering a powerful, unified impetus to the various scenes. But Wheeldon’s dances are so unrelievedly fidgety and his stagecraft so relentlessly unfocused that the result often looks thrown together and confused.
Witless, hectic character-mime and bold special effects dominate Act 1. An interlude of extended dances follows in Act 2. But Wheeldon isn’t an expressive choreographer and there’s no feeling in his love duets, just flashy displays in which he flings steps at the dancers to no evident purpose. Act 3 reverts to fussy quasi-comic overkill intercut with character solos.
Poor Alice incessantly pumps out pointe-work all evening long but is given only two facial expressions: “I LOOOOOVE dancing” and “What’s happening to me?”
But if she quickly becomes tiresome as a character, the production itself and the performances keep you watching. What “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has in abundance is scenic spectacle of unprecedented extravagance, courtesy of designer Bob Crowley, and the extraordinary skill, versatility and spirit of the Canadian dancers.
Crowley’s creature-costumes may be disappointing, but the phenomenal way his settings move and morph is half the show at the Pavilion. The other half: Canada’s dancing paragons, determined to please. Execution by the flowers and by a line of male playing cards suffered some loss of unanimity on Friday, but such lapses didn’t contradict the impression that this is as fine an ensemble as you can find in North America.
Alice may be the most thankless ballerina role in the international repertory but Sonia Rodriguez never faltered, even when being flung about in duets with Guillaume Côté as her adoring Knave of Hearts. Playing, respectively, the Queen of Hearts and the White Rabbit, Greta Hodgkinson and Aleksandar Antonijevic refused to be obliterated by their ornate costumes and delivered distinctive portrayals.
Momentary relief from Wheeldon’s stale classical rhetoric came from Robert Stephen as the tapdancing Mad Hatter and Jirí Jelinek as the muscle-flexing Arabian caterpillar. (The ballet is double-cast, so other dancers will perform many of these roles during the run.) David Briskin conducted the orchestra.
Back in 1988, the company brought us a richer, deeper, more imaginative “Alice” by Glen Tetley. But a bombastic score and a downbeat action plan (the historical Alice sadly looking back at Wonderland in old age) made it unsuitable for repeat “Nutcracker”-style attendance. Rex Harrington played Lewis Carroll then and turned up Friday as the King of Hearts, a testament to company continuity and a reminder that expensive renovations -- in Wonderland as in other locations -- aren’t always improvements.
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” National Ballet of Canada, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, downtown L.A.; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $34-$125 (213) 972-0711 or www.musiccenter.org.