Ending the year on a high note

22 November 2019

Review: West Australian Ballet, Alice (in wonderland) ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 21 November ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

West Australian Ballet (WAB) is ending the year on a high with its season of Alice (in wonderland).

A charismatic concoction of mad-cap music, surreal design, aerobatic puppetry and ballet that blends neoclassical and contemporary styles with a giant dollop of crazy, the success of this work lies in the collaboration between choreographer Septime Webre (artistic director of Hong Kong Ballet) and his creative team, composer Matthew Pierce, costume designer Liz Vandal, puppet designer Eric Van Wyk, set designer James Kronzer and lighting designer Clifton Taylor.

Though not a new production – Webre’s Alice was first performed by Washington Ballet in 2012 – WAB’s rendition feels fresh, under the guidance of répétiteur Johanna Wilt, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scanella and conductor Jessica Gethin (a small cheer was heard on opening night as this local conductor took to the podium to lead West Australian Philharmonic Orchestra).

Though closely based on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Webre’s Alice holds the plot lightly, instead letting its dreamlike quality drive the ballet. From the outset, too, it’s clear that this work is as much about music as it is about dance. The prologue, in which we see Alice (Chihiro Nomura) daydreaming “as her family swirls about around her chaotically”, is underpinned by a score that’s a bit jazzy, a bit 70s. More than a backdrop, the music animates the scene; sliding into slo-mo as a family photo goes off-kilter, giving voice to a yelp as Alice’s highly-charged mother (Glenda Garcia Gomez) grabs her sweetly dopey husband (Matthew Lehmann) by his head. As the score unfolds it’s jam-packed with styles and references, perfect fodder for Gethin who is renowned for the breadth of her repertoire.

Julio Blanes as the White Rabbit and Glenda Garcia Gomez as the Queen of Hearts in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Sergey Pevnev
Julio Blanes as the White Rabbit and Glenda Garcia Gomez as the Queen of Hearts. Photo: Sergey Pevnev.

Puppetry, too, is central to this ballet, aided by wires that allow the dancers to fly (with direction from Dylan Trujillo of Flying by Foy). As well as traditional puppetry – most notably the Jabberwock, an imposing red-eyed creature operated by seven dancers – the dancers become puppets themselves. When Alice cries her “pool of tears”, she and the Dormouse (Mayume Noguromi) bob and tumble, courtesy of a team whose outlines can be seen through the blue banners of fabric that comprise the water. Later, the acrobatic caterpillar (Alexa Tuzil) is held aloft by many hands as she undulates and contorts through a circus-like routine. There’s no attempt made to hide the magic but that brings another level of humour; the scene in which Alice “grows” is comic gold on cables… but you’ll have to see the show to be in on the joke.

One of Alice’s many charms is the linking of the “real-world” characters to those in Wonderland. First as Alice’s mother and then as the Queen of Hearts, Garcia Gomez was hilariously terrifying on opening night, while Lehmann played her dim and down-trodden partner (Father then King) with foppish charm. All four characters are beautifully costumed by Vandal (as is the whole work); a stylised rose-inspired headpiece adds a touch of 1920s glamour to the Queen, while both Father and King sport heart-shaped glasses that perfectly suit their silliness.

With Swan Lake references in choreography and score, the lanky, neon pink flamingos were a huge hit with the opening night audience, but the puffy baby flamingos – danced with precision and character by a team of child guest artists – almost stole the show with their nodding heads and youthful enthusiasm. That said, Oscar Valdes and Dayana Hardy Acuna gave them a run for their money. Neat as a button, Hardy Acuna was charming as the Eaglet, but it’s the Dodo who gets the show-stopping moves in this scene, performed by Valdes with his customary panache.

Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Scott Dennis (4)
Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat. Photo: Scott Dennis.

From here it’s difficult to select favourite scenes; all delight. There’s Alice’s meeting with the Cheshire Cat, (the versatile Lehmann) who oozes sexual innuendo, the strings simpering as he rubs his body against Alice. It’s a touch creepy but too silly to take seriously. Alice’s pas de deux with the Cat is full of complicated throws, catches and balances, handled by Nomura and Lehmann with aplomb.

There’s the Mad Hatter Tea Party, with its backdrop of artificially bright gerberas, its electronica reference (from the 90s?), the creepily colourful Mad Hatter (an irrepressible Juan Carlos Osma), the hyper March Hare (Adam Alzaim)  and the gorgeously grooving Dormouse (Mayume Nogorumi, delightfully recognisable as Grandmother).

And then there’s the Garden Party… and Vandal’s crisp and clever deck-of-cards tutus and art-deco-styled roses (sharply danced by Polly Hilton, Claire Voss, Alexa Tuzil) who risk their lives by fraternizing with the King… but you know what? You’ll just have to see if you can snaffle a ticket to find out more.

As the White Rabbit, Julio Blanes flitted in and out of the story with a leap and a grin. Special mention must be made of the aforementioned child guests, who impressed in various scenes. Last but certainly not least, in the title role Nomura charmed the opening night audience with her unfailing warmth, wit and grace.

Alice (in wonderland) is a must-see show… but you’d better book ASAP, it’s bound to sell out.

Alice (in wonderland) runs until December 15.

Find out what our junior critics had to say about Alice (in wonderland).

Pictured top: Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat. Photo: Sergey Pevnev.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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