Initial impressions of "Wonderland"
Royal Winnipeg Ballet
4 November 2011
Jubilee Auditorium North, Edmonton, AB
What do you get when you mix a bit of “mad as a hatter” with a pinch of stunning scenery, a cup of gently blended La La La Human Steps and William Forsythe, and a heaping tablespoon of balletic talent? Nothing less than the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s “Wonderland” of course! Former RWB dancer’s Shawn Hounsell’s latest addition to the company repertoire, is an outlandish, off the wall interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of the girl who fell down the rabbit hole – or at least dreamed that she did - and had an one heck of an off-kilter adventure. With minimal sets exponentially enhanced by inventive projections and contemporary choreography, Hounsell created a ballet perfectly suited to the size, talents and touring needs of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Even with some flaws, it’s a memorable production that should continue to entertain audiences for years to come.
Though Hounsell, whose background includes choreographic stints with a variety of Quebec-based dance companies, rehearsal directing with La La La Human Steps and principal roles in ballets by choreographers like Naharin and Kylian, is not one to create a classical tutu and pointe shoe-bedecked ballet. His dancers flex their feet in soft shoes or ballet sneakers, don eye-poppingly bright costumes (Anne Armit) and occasionally express themselves in words through on stage mikes. Hounsell’s particular style appears heavily influenced by La La Human Steps and William Forsythe, in that he mixes that total anything goes free-for-all of “Impressing the Czar” with the bold athletic nature of La La La Human Steps. His comfort zone is so clearly off-balance and contemporary that when he does try to go the more classical route, it can seem awkward (something that seemed to occur with Benjamin Millepied in his Nutcracker for the Geneva Opera Ballet).
The ballet starts with Alice chasing the white rabbit until she falls down the rabbit hole, or at least into her dreams. Amanda Green’s Alice, who starts in a checked frock, and spends some time in blue and then in bright red, is smartly danced, though less memorable than some of the other characters. What is memorable is the stunning setting, a combination of Guillame Lord’s sets, Hugh Conacher’s lighting and Jimmy Lakatos’ mind-blowing projections. The use of video projections is becoming increasing common on the ballet stage, both as a way to reduce costs and to create effects, but Lakatos and his collaborators have taken the practice to a whole new level.
When Alice first wanders through her dreamland woods, slides of real woods are projected against a perfectly arrayed combination of partial scrims, large, mobile white blocks on the stage and hanging panels. The effect is of an incredibly detailed, three-dimensional forest that doesn’t seem to begin or end. The blocks and hanging panels are moved around the stage for other projections, including words, images and movies, and to create sets for the dancers to run around and through. The effects are further enhanced by Nicolas Bernier’s soundscape; in the end it’s the score by a combination of John Estacio, Brian Current and Josef Strauss that loses out. A combination of hyper-modern and faux-classical, it’s competent, but not memorable.
As Alice continues to discover the Wonderland, we are introduced to a cacophony of characters who range from odd to completely mad as a hatter. Armit’s costumes cleverly divorce the ballet from any particular era - except perhaps some of the color-combination sins of the 1970s – so there’s no need for the proceedings to make any real sense. The characters are lively, with Hounsell a master at creating organization out of chaos. The ballet is full of crowd scenes where everyone is doing their own thing, running in their own direction, but it all just works. In the opening scene of the first act, the characters run madly around the white blocks as they chase Alice, Alice chases them, the White Rabbit chases Alice and so on. The chaos is invaded at one point by Odile, and a banana-munching gorilla, nevermind the endless parade of Wonderland characters. But it all seems perfect, down to the expressions, collisions, surprise and hijinks that ensue. If there is any complaint, it is that many of the characters are hard to identify given the crazy costumes and the utter lack of any company photos in the program (47 pages and you can’t even include shots of the principals and soloists?!).
Among those who stood out early were Jo-Ann Sundermeier’s feisty March Hare, Emily Grizzell’s bi-eared, narcoleptic dormouse and Tristan Dobrowney who made an impression among the corps for his sculpted physique and impressive moves (and for wearing pink-striped biketard with flair). Yosuke Mino captured well the hyperactive nature of the White Rabbit, though one often felt like we were barely scratching the surface of his balletic talents.
While the Cheshire Cat sadly was present only in voice and eyes, the Caterpillar was transformed in a sultry black-clad ballerina and her trio of male cavaliers. As one of the few dancers en pointe, Carrie Brodie nearly stole the show with her pincer like legs, and sultry, but powerful dancing. Of all the dancers, Brodie most evoked the powerful precision of Forsythe and La La La Human Steps.
Act One ends with the famous tea party of which much has been written, and much chaos was enacted on stage –including real shattering crockery and a mad hatter! The scene though included two of the most problematic components of the production – spoken word and excessive length. At times the dancing seemed to go beyond it’s natural lifespan, moving from imaginative to repetitive. A bit of editing would go a long way to enhancing the ballet. Also, as in other scenes, a microphone was incorporated into sets to allow the dancers to talk. Musicals aside, I tend to shy away from the spoken word in ballets because dance is about music and movement, not literal word. More practically, the effect was lost because the dancers words were often either indistinct or drowned out by the music.
While Alice may have been the main character in the ballet, Act Two was all about the Tara Birtwhistle. The retired ballerina and current balletmistress channeled Jane Lynch to create a Queen of Hearts that was equal parts totally mad, bitingly sarcastic and hyperkinetic. It was Sue Sylvester meets Wonderland with all the facial expressions and put downs, combined with knock ‘em dead dancing. Birtwhistle looks like she’s barely lost any of her dancing prowess, cavorting around the stage in faux-horrible dance. The ball became a rehearsal for some sort of performance, the Queen a dominating ballet mistress trying to stay front in centre but putting all and sundry down. At one point she derides one of the female dancers, parodying all that is the ballet world “ I don’t like you … off with her head!”.
In fact, Birtwhistle is so dominant that the story gets a bit lost the Queen-isms and the one-liners. While Birtwhistle has a delightfully droll speaking voice, her constant bellowing through the megaphone grew increasingly less charming. To make her audible above the music, the megaphone had to be turned up so high that it was at times physically painful to listen, and by the end her bellows become more tedious than amusing. This was a time when less is more. I also grew tired off the attempts for audience interaction with the ‘applause’ signs; the audience was clearly never really sure when to applaud so it became rather awkward.
Among the ballroom guests were a collection of brilliant flamingos, in the guise of chorus girls with bird heads and long spangled tails. By having them en pointe, Hounsell created a truly long legged effect, and allowed them to stretch their legs in a series of elegant kicks and twirls.
Perhaps the most striking and effective scenes in the ballet comes towards the end when Alice escapes the Queen and flees into a garden of living flowers. Lakatos’ projections again create a scene of jaw-dropping beauty - a combination of the blocks, panels and lace-like scrims form the backdrop for projections of detailed flowers. This initial image is already intricately textured and three dimensional, but becomes all the more stunning when the projections animate to create the image of flowered patterns growing from floor to ceiling. I couldn’t help but wondering it it would be the stunning for a projection of Sleeping Beauty. The flowers themselves are attired in white one or two piece ‘suits’ reminiscent of the bathing suits/showgirl costumes often seen in the early MGM musical movies, and their heads topped by white lacey flower-like confections. In keeping with the off beat nature of the ballet, however, their slow, delicate dance was set to the cacophony of city sounds. These were well-kept windowbox flowers in the city, not country meadow wildflowers.
Alice’s final encounters were with the Gryphon & Mock Turtle, and probably the section of the ballet that made the least sense. The plodding, semi-modern pas deux seemed more of a vehicle to show off the company’s newest principals, Wang Yun and Jiao Yang than a natural fit for the off-the-wall ballet. Though the couple are clearly dancers of high quality, they looked a bit awkward in the fairly modern choreography, and Jiao was saddled with a unflatteringly torso elongating costume. Equally, the short pas deux between Dmitri Dovgoselets and Amanda Green’s Alice was quite wonderful, but equally out of place in the ballet. Dovgoselets is not only an excellent partner, but we are also treated to glimpses of his effortless technique. His jumps seem to rise out of nowhere, landing with nary a thump.
The ending was a bit of an anti-climax, with too much philosophizing by the off-stage voice (an unidentified voice who was often heard reading passages from the book). I am of the belief that a ballet should stand for itself, and if there is too much explaining either in program notes or onstage voices/text, than the choreographer is trying to be too complicated. The concept that the end of one story is the beginning of another is wonderful, but Hounsell needs to find a way to say this with more dancing and less speaking.
Quibbles aside, this “Wonderland” was truly full of treats, wackiness and creative genius. I hope that Hounsell will have a chance to tweak the production – a little pruning of long sections, reduction of the less-than-effective spoken word and some reworking of the finale will make this a ballet for the long haul and treasured part of the RWB repertoire.