Luke Jennings, summing up the critics’ verdicts on the ‘McCartney Ballet’ in the Guardian’s theatre blog, reflected on unsuccessful narrative ballets:
Ballet’s gatekeepers tend to almost infinite credulity, and this, to a large extent, is why there are so many bad narrative ballets. Here in the UK there are dance directors who understand the nature and importance of story – Matthew Bourne, ZooNation’s Kate Prince, the Royal Ballet’s Will Tuckett – but many more who don’t. And so we get slow-motion car crashes like last year’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, created for the Royal Ballet by Christopher Wheeldon, and Ocean’s Kingdom.
A slow-motion car crash… wow! I loved Alice, though I haven’t seen it in the theatre. The Arts Desk’s David Nice has only seen it via the newly released DVD and guess what – he loved it too. In a long interview Christopher Wheeldon explained his creative process and how he believes he resolved the problems that Jennings sees. One of the trickiest bits of turning this particular book into a ballet is that the entire narrative is based on wordplay which can’t be directly translated into dance movements. Says Jennings,
Wheeldon is an accomplished maker of abstract ballets, but neither he nor anyone else at Covent Garden grasped what was obvious to many: that a whimsical and episodic story reliant on surreal word-play was simply not translatable into dance. And so, like Ocean’s Kingdom, the thing rolled on unchecked, until the artistic debacle of its opening. Part of the problem is that choreographers are commonly regarded – in the teeth of evidence to the contrary – as geniuses whose work is untouchable. There’s no editor, no studio, no producer monitoring the process. No one to step in, cry halt, and turn off the money-tap when the squawk of a turkey is heard.
The Arts Desk asked Wheeldon about the structure:
We really wanted to make sure that the ballet came together dramaturgically in the last act. The book itself is very episodic and that’s why we decided to create this second narrative and to give Alice a purpose going through Wonderland following the Knave of Hearts and setting up that little relationship at the beginning [the Liddells are seen in Oxford, where a little scene develops with the gardener’s boy who will metamorphose into the Knave]. And that trial sequence at the end, it’s completely mad in the book and our concern came from the observation that on stage historically Alice hasn’t worked very well, and part of the reason why it hasn’t worked very well is that there’s never been a satisfying conclusion or for that matter a satisfying journey for Alice through Wonderland – on the page it feels like a lot of little episodes full of wordplay and crazy characters.
There’s that wordplay again, and here’s the solution as Wheeldon sees it:
The wordplay is of course the very first thing to go, and that’s a large chunk of the charm of the original Lewis Carroll novel. So we needed a glue to pull all of those episodes together, and it is a journey, that first scene, so she has to be introduced to all the characters in order for them to come together in the second act, in order to help bring the story to a conclusion. It did naturally take that kind of structure.
Camera close-ups probably help to take us on that journey with Lauren Cuthbertson’s Alice. Sharing her expressive facial reactions to the increasingly incredible world in which she finds herself makes the whole story almost logical. My verdict from the stalls will have to wait until next year, but the DVD’s great!
Photo: Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice – detail from Johan Perssons/ROH photo