Riddles, puns and pirouettes: The Royal Ballet takes on ‘Alice in Wonderland’

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The Royal Ballet has replaced the Nutcracker with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland this holiday season

The ballet combines inventive set design and impressive choreography

All performances are currently sold out

CNN  — 

Curiouser and curiouser! A cat’s head floats across the stage. A white snake orbits it, buoyed and silently guided by a troupe of dancers hidden in darkness of black cloth. The Cheshire cat’s head is joined on stage by its paws and body and the snake is revealed as its tail. The animal marches, Chinese-dragon like, up and down the wide stage of the Royal Opera House.

Breaking decades of tradition, the Royal Ballet has been running a full-length commission of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” since 2011, replacing the Nutcracker as the mainstay of London’s Christmas dance season. Theater designer Bob Crowley goes beyond faithfully rendering Lewis Carroll’s original story into dance scenes, but uses plenty of his own smoke and mirrors – sometimes literally – to create breathtaking stage craft.

Curtains on strings and projected light conjure the illusion of Alice collapsing and expanding in height; huge paper boats float over a sea of draped dancers; enormous towers of cards are erected and collapsed; and the myriad hidden horrors behind the innocuous looking home sweet home are revealed with brio.

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Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography left children and adults alike stunned on Saturday’s opening night, the first of a sell out run that rolls through to January, all the more impressive when you consider he had to silently communicate a book so replete with puns, riddles and invented words.

Alexander Campbell as The Mad Hatter.

The purple-dressed protagonist skittishly twirls through a waltz of dancing flowers as two lines of dancers emerge from the back of the all gold and velvet hall, donning gigantic colorful meringue hats and bounding down the aisles. Ensconced within home sweet home a scene of complete mayhem emerges: a fiery butcher’s shop staffed with malevolence. Alice dances around the mad proprietor’s bloodied cleaver, snipping strings of sausages and escaping into the lush green countryside within an inch of her life.

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Zenaida Yanowsky as The Queen of Hearts stole the show, most of which she spent being pushed around in a heart-shaped cherry-red carriage by a squad of red cavaliers, reprimanding her minions and sowing chaos wherever she went. Once off her wheels, she was repeatedly disturbed from her graceful dance by the clumsy mistakes of a group of dancing fools. She pushes one over, threatens another with decapitation before dancing flat onto her back, legs akimbo in a huge swirl of red tutu.

Alas, you may have to wait till next year but there is real magic within the walls of Royal Opera House at Christmastime in London.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland runs until January 16, 2015 at Royal Opera House, London. It will be broadcast to select cinemas worldwide on December 16, 2014.

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