The Australian Ballet: Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

Natasha Ciesielski
22nd Feb 2024

For the first show of the season, Australian Ballet Artistic Director David Hallberg chose the topsy-turvy world of Alice’s Wonderland. Whilst the story is based on the well-known children’s book, British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon takes the audience down a new rabbit hole, one that includes first love, even more adventures and provides a visual feast of delights.

Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was last performed in 2019. Hallberg says Alice redefines what ballet is. With a cast of over 70 dancers, more than 350 costumes, 27 sets changes, it’s the biggest production undertaken by the Australian Ballet.

First created for the Royal Ballet in 2011, Wheeldon collaborated with Tony Award-winning designer Bob Crowley and composer Joby Talbot, creating a completely new way to show Lewis Carroll’s 150-year-old tale.

The curtains rise to a garden party in 1862 and the audience is slowly introduced to the cast of characters who will drive Alice’s dream sequence.

On opening night, Alice was performed by Principal dancer Sharni Spencer (the role will be shared with Spencer, Benedicte Bemet and Robyn Hendricks). Spencer dances the demanding lead role with whimsy and playfulness. Wheeldon’s choreography challenges the dancers and this is especially seen in the scenes with George-Murray Nightingale as the show-stopping Mad Hatter, expertly fusing classical ballet with tap.

Principal Artist Ako Kondo (who played the role of Alice in 2019) now takes on the role of the ruthless Queen, forcing the courtiers to dance with her. It’s a tango like no-other, instead of passion these dancers are on-edge and fearful, trying to force distance between them and the Queen. Kondo’s movements are exaggerated bringing the flamboyancy and humour needed to the role.  

Anthropomorphising into the role of the rabbit (and Lewis Carroll) is Principal Artist Brett Chynoweth. Not only did he leap into the role with strength and grace but he was captivating as the rabbit with nervous twitches, adoring glances and impatient leg scratches.

Crowley’s unique imprint on the costumes and set-design present a curiouser and curiouser world. The creative genius has taken ideas from his childhood through to contemporary events. When considering costumes for the terrifying Queen of Hearts, Crowley remembered a photograph of Margaret Thatcher driving a tank. Taking that idea, he created a vibrant red heart-shaped vehicle for the Queen to appear within.

There’s so much to look at in this magical story; from flamingo croquet to fantastical furniture. The set-design is incredible with needlepoint facade backdrops opening up, a paper boat drifting across the stage and a caterpillar with sparkling 16 feet in bejewelled pointe shoes.

In the scene with Alice shrinking, doors growing, followed by an oversized Alice in a tight box, projections of psychedelic optical illusions and immersive digital projections guide the audience’s imagination. Led by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, the duo bring their film-making skills to the production and combine clever use of projections, animations and technology to bring set-design to life and allow the characters to interact with the background and stage.

Orchestra Victoria joins the Australian Ballet for their tour to Sydney at the Capitol Theatre.

The three-act performance runs for 160 minutes with two 20-minute intermissions.

The madcap Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will show at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney until 5 March. It will then head to Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre (15 to 26 March).

It’s a nonsensical masterpiece, 5 stars.

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