Performing arts in Hong Kong

Lewis Carroll’s Alice comes alive in Hong Kong Ballet production, its first choreographed by artistic director Septime Webre

Septime Webre pulls out all the stops in this entertaining production packed with spectacular effects and full of energy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 7:24pm

The premiere of Hong Kong Ballet’s new full-length Alice (In Wonderland) gave audiences their first sight of artistic director Septime Webre’s choreography. In this production, originally created for Washington Ballet, Webre pulls out all the stops; packed with spectacular theatrical effects, fast and furious dancing and blazing energy, it’s great entertainment for children, parents and ballet lovers alike.

Webre’s adaptation is largely faithful to Lewis Carroll’s classic story – which may puzzle those who haven’t re-read the book recently.

The choreography is consistently well crafted and has some magically inventive moments: the sinuous Caterpillar held aloft and manipulated by a group of partners; the sublimely feline Cheshire Cat; and Alice doing graceful balletic backstroke in the Pool of Tears.

The company’s classical technique is showcased in a delicious homage to the 19th century grand pas de deux in general, and Swan Lake in particular, led by the Dodo Bird and the Eaglet, plus a corps de ballet of flamingos – this is Flamingo Lake.

There’s excellent use of child performers, who are cute without being cloying and perform with astonishing discipline – kudos to them, their teachers and children’s ballet master Charles Andersen.

On the downside, the first half is too long at well over an hour and would benefit from some judicious cuts. The opening scene where Alice is with her family, who then reappear in different forms in her subsequent dream is a too familiar device that adds little to the proceedings.

One of the book’s best scenes, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, is one of the weakest in the ballet. The idea of presenting it as a 1960s psychedelic experience (after Alice eats the magic mushrooms, interpret that as you will) is clever, but the execution is confused and lacks structure.

The concept and costumes by Liz Vandal, known for her work with Cirque du Soleil, offer an ingenious realisation of Carroll’s fantasy ideas. Alice’s growth to giant size and the Caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly are true show-stoppers, as is the Jabberwock. The characters fly – I doubt the Cultural Centre Grand Theatre has ever seen so many performers on wires – and personifications of Carroll’s weird and wonderful imagination flow continuously across the stage.

Another big asset is the score by Matthew Pierce, who conducted and played lead violin. Performed by a small ensemble from the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, the music seems at first surprisingly low-key for a production of this nature, yet turns out to be extremely effective. Pierce is a ballet specialist and his conducting was an object lesson in responsiveness to the dancers and choreography.

The demands made on the dancers are enormous in terms of energy and technique, not to mention most taking more than one role.

With all the company so good, it’s hard to single anyone out, but a special word must go to the ballerinas playing Alice, who is hardly ever off the stage. Both casts I saw were excellent. Venus Villa (by an odd coincidence, previously seen in Hong Kong with English National Ballet in the title role of Derek Deane’s version of Alice) is petite and feisty, and made a more convincing little girl, but the taller Chen Zhiyao more than made up for it with some ravishing dancing.

The company’s new ballet master, Luis Torres, did a rollicking turn as a demented Duchess, flinging the hapless Lin Chang-yuan around and even carrying him across the stage in a one-handed lift which brought the house down.

Garry Corpuz’s ever-grinning Cheshire Cat, Wei Wei’s downtrodden King and Jin Yao’s terrifying Queen of Hearts were particular gems, while Shen Jie and Jonathan Spigner stood out in an astonishing variety of roles.

Alice (in Wonderland), Hong Kong Ballet, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre.

Reviewed: August 17 (evening) and 19 (matinee)

Alice (in Wonderland) will be performed at Yuen Long Theatre August 24 to 26