The full-length story ballet has long been a stalwart of classical repertoires, from 19th-century Romantic standards such as "Giselle" and "Swan Lake" to mid-20th century dramas like "Romeo and Juliet" and "Midsummer Night's Dream."
But original story ballets in the 21st century have been a rarity, and successful ones even more elusive. Which only serves to underscore the accomplishment of Christopher Wheeldon's three-act 2011 production of "Alice in Wonderland," the first full-length piece created for the Royal Ballet in 16 years, which I saw recently as part of the Ballet in Cinema movie theater screenings.
This dazzlingly theatrical take on the familiar Lewis Carroll tale scores on every account, from Joby Talbot's score, a superb melding of the traditional and the contemporary, to the vivid and witty set and costume designs Bob Crowley) and innovative video projections (Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington). Add in Wheeldon's adroit and ingenious choreography, which makes the surreal cast of characters leap to life, and you have a new (if extravagantly challenging) story ballet standard.
Dramaturge Nicholas Wright helped tweak the familiar tale, adding a prologue set in an Oxford courtyard in 1862 with a twitchy Carroll (Edward Watson, soon to become the White Rabbit) reading a story to his nieces. It serves to introduce, in Wizard of Oz-like fashion, the characters Alice (Sarah Lamb) will encounter in her fantasy world to come, including the object of her affection, Jack, the gardner's son (Frederico Bonelli, who reappears as the Knave of Hearts).
The first act is a little long (at 70 minutes), but Lamb is so accurately adolescent and incorrigible and the "special effects" so dazzling — in particular, Alice's tumble down the rabbit hole in which a marionette is shown on film spirally down a tunnel as cinematic hearts, numbers and leaves fly by — there's not a moment that's less than captivating.
Act II, however, is when things launch into full gear, starting with a splendidly surreal Sweeney Todd-esque butcher shop scene where the Duchess (Philip Mosely in drag) and the Cook (Kristin McNally) face off. That's followed by the introduction, in rapid succession, of the familiars — the Mad Hatter (a tap-dancing Steven McRae), the Caterpillar (Eric Underwood) and a hilariously neurotic Queen of Hearts (the superbly comic Zenaida Yanowsky, who is initially wheeled on stage encased in an enormous red wooden heart that serves as her dress).
Throughout there are brilliant evocations of exactly the aspects of this Jabberwocky story that you wonder how on earth a ballet will manage. Take, for example, the Chesire Cat, who, through brilliant lighting and the manipulation of various body parts by mostly-invisible puppeteers, seems to float, rotate and disappear as if by magic.
The production is in no way just a bag of tricks, however. The dancing is superb, from the young Royal students rolling about as hedgehogs/croquet balls during Act III (the croquet mallets are played by dancers in pink, each with a pecking flamingo head at the end of a serpentine arm) to Yanowsky, in flaming red, intentionally performing badly, with the skill that only an exceptional technician has. A parody of the Sleeping Beauty Rose Adagio — here the Queen's inept attendants offer jam tarts rather than roses — is a new comedy classic.
It's all neatly tied up with a return trip up the rabbit hole and a final scene set in the present day, with Bonelli in jeans and Lamb in a sundress, culminating their adolescent affair with a first kiss.
Who says the story ballet is dead? To my mind this production proves it has returned, and with a bang, not a whimper.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Royal Ballet, part of the Ballet in Cinema series at the Royal Palm 20, 5125 26th St. East, Bradenton. Encore screening 7 p.m. May 7. $15. www.balletincinema.com.