As the curtain opens on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” performed by the National Ballet of Canada at the Kennedy Center, we’re in familiar territory. That is, it’s familiar if you’re among the fans of the hit PBS series “Downton Abbey,” for the ballet’s first moments take place on the grounds of a palatial manor in the English countryside, where a garden party is being prepared with yards of white linen, platters of pastries and much fussing over flowers.
But instead of the emotionally repressed aristocracy of the TV show, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon gives us something more delicious: a psychotic hostess in excelsis, who terrorizes her family and the servants and fires the gardener’s boy with sadistic zeal. Portrayed on Friday’s opening night by Greta Hodgkinson, the crazy lady of the house is all sharp angles and dagger-like pointes, a spidery creature whose outsize temper fills the stage.
She’s also the mother of young Alice (a spunky, effervescent Jillian Vanstone), and she will reappear as the implacable Queen of Hearts when her daughter tumbles down the rabbit hole into the dream world where the rest of the ballet unfolds. That’s a good thing, because Hodgkinson’s over-the-top Mommie-Dearest-on-a-tear is the most fully realized character in this ballet, which continues at the Opera House through Jan. 27.
Wheeldon’s account of the beloved Lewis Carroll story is eventful and beautifully designed. But it is curiously light on the human dimension, because the dancing is the least interesting part of it. Who are these eccentric characters who parade by? What emotions move them? These are questions the dancing ought to answer, but though there is plenty of action onstage during the ballet’s two-and-a-half hours, it rarely leads us inside the heart.
Yet while the choreography is workaday, from a theatrical perspective “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” explodes with bright ideas. Author Carroll is woven into the story as a family friend and photographer who transforms into the White Rabbit before our eyes. We’re all sent spinning down his hole — the portal to Wonderland — by means of a dizzying, kaleidoscopic film effect that will either delight you or give you vertigo. Backdrops that loom or shrink help depict Alice’s magical transformations into giantess and pixie. (Bob Crowley composed the designs, drawing artfully on Victorian whimsy, while Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington created the cleverly devised projections.)
Some of the scenic effects spill into the audience: At one point, confetti rains down on the front orchestra section, and ballerinas in floral garb waltz down the aisles. They are meant to represent a vision of the Queen’s garden, launching Alice on a quest to find the real thing and reunite there with Jack, the fired gardener’s boy, on whom she has a crush and who appears in her dream as the Knave of Hearts. In a departure from the book, Wheeldon gives his account a budding-romance theme, nudging it into the realm of a traditional fairy-tale love story.
You can’t blame him. The ballet is full of visual delights inspired by the book: the Caterpillar, a winding line of disembodied ballerina legs; the Cheshire Cat, a jigsaw puzzle of feline parts held aloft by puppeteers; the blood-spattered Duchess and Cook, whose fabulously detailed sausage-grinding operation in a kitchen full of hacked-up hogs is like a scene from “Sweeney Todd.” But as a storyteller Wheeldon is confined to ideas that are choreographically manageable, and love and hate are at the top of that list. Wordplay and philosophy, which were Caroll’s masterstrokes, aren’t on it.
As a result, Wheeldon has an interesting piece of theater — something like a series of music-hall acts — but he doesn’t quite have a great ballet here. Certainly, this sprawling work, created in 2011 as a shared production for the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, presented an enormous stretch for him, as he has built his brilliant career on short abstract works.
He gets a good deal of atmospheric assistance from Joby Talbot’s original score, which, as performed by the Opera House Orchestra, is full of mystery, oddity and sudden jolts, with a propulsive undertone of tick-tocking.
The ballet’s love angle feels half-realized — it’s not especially clear until Alice and Jack (Naoya Ebe) meet up in a sweeping dance of awakening passion in the second act. But the hate part is genius. That’s where Hodgkinson’s Mother/Queen of Hearts is in her glory. You have to wait until late in the ballet for her big scene, but it’s worth it. That rubbery, expressive face! Those laser-precise fingers! She points one maliciously at a gardener and it’s as if she were shooting poison darts. Her self-important flirtation with four underlings is a hilarious send-up of the Rose Adagio from “The Sleeping Beauty,” by way of the Three Stooges. Laughs at the ballet are rare. When Wheeldon is good, he is very, very good indeed.
performed by the National Ballet of Canada, runs through Jan. 27 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with cast changes.