Pretty vacant

7 October 2017

9:00 AM

7 October 2017

9:00 AM

Alice is at it again. Christopher Wheeldon’s 2011 three-act ballet began another sell-out run at Covent Garden last week. It’s a joy to look at and packed with featured roles that show off the Royal Ballet’s strength in depth. If only it weren’t such a bore: thinly written characters; anodyne choreography and zero dramatic tension.

To be fair, the episodic dream logic of the original doesn’t make for a coherent or involving narrative. Wheeldon and his scenarist, Nicholas Wright, have done their best to correct for this by tacking on a Wizard of Oz-style prologue in which the Caterpillar, Dormouse et al. are human guests at an Oxford tea party. Carroll’s heroine becomes a teenager (and thus eligible for romantic duets), and a modern-day epilogue has been added to reunite her with the Knave of Hearts. But this perfunctory happy ending doesn’t engage us and Joby Talbot’s brassy, percussive score can’t fill the emotional gaps.

Lauren Cuthbertson showed off her long, clean lines and light jump at last Wednesday’s opening and Federico Bonelli brought boyish charm and classical elegance to the Knave, but the night belonged to Laura Morera’s Queen of Hearts. The Spanish star relishes the physical comedy of Wheeldon’s parody of the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, but Morera’s Queen is far more than a comic turn and her hilarious playing of the axe-happy monarch is all of a piece with the neurotic châtelaine of the deanery in the opening scene. Tierney Heap, who took over the role at Saturday’s matinee, nailed the slapstick but missed that sense of a personality in meltdown.

Saturday afternoon’s Alice was Francesca Hayward, who brings the right mix of girlish charm and grown-up technique, feet bourrée-ing exquisitely in straight-from-the-box pink satin pointe shoes and a jeté like a paper plane.

The cameos were all vividly danced and played. David Yudes was a spring-driven frog footman. Tapmeister Steven McRae makes short work of the Mad Hatter’s solo but young Calvin Richardson also rattles through the routine with manic glee.

And it really does look fabulous (so I should hope, given a rumoured spend of £2 million). Designer Bob Crowley steers clear of Tenniel’s illustrations to create his own take on Wonderland: a Gilliamesque world of woodcuts, coloured scraps and toy theatres supplemented by shape-shifting video projections from Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington. Each stage picture is more striking than the last: a wall of locked doors; a waltz of living flowers; a panoramic boat ride through a silhouetted forest like a Gallé glass vase.

Meanwhile, two postcodes away, former Royal Ballet superstar Carlos Acosta had brought his new company, Acosta Danza, to Sadler’s Wells with Debut, a (very) mixed bill. Acosta, conscious that his own rags-to-riches story was made possible by the opportunities given him by dance, was determined to give others the same chance. Two years ago, he founded his Havana-based company with backing from the Cuban government. It’s a laudable initiative and its success seems assured, given the selling power of the Acosta brand (standing ovations guaranteed). But it was a disappointing evening.

The night began with a revival of Marianela Boán’s 1987 The Crossing Over Niagara, inspired by Charles Blondin’s piggyback tightrope feat of 1859. Alejandro Silva and Carlos Luis Blanco, flaunting his Stretch Armstrong physique in the skimpiest of posing pouches. The two men gave a 24-minute display of glacial bends and nerveless balances accompanied by canned Messiaen and faint whimpers of pleasure: part anatomy lesson, part floorshow.

The programme closed on a high with Jorge Crecis’s Twelve, in which 12 dancers lob and catch three-dozen water bottles in a larky but precision-drilled display of hand-eye coordination.

Sandwiched between was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Mermaid, a short duet starring the still mesmerising Acosta (every lift a caress). The normally reliable Justin Peck, resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, supplied Belles Lettres, an overwrought, rather old-fashioned number for swooning couples danced to César Franck’s Piano Quintet, but the evening’s wooden spoon went to Goyo Montero for Imponderable. The nine-man piece involves a lot of portable smoke machines and much use of small flashlights. It bills itself as ‘a reflection on the incomprehensible’ but it looked more like a power cut at a delousing centre.

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