`Alice' makes audiences grin like Cheshires

`CURIOUSER and curiouser.'' First, one Alice; then, an adult Alice; next, a swarm of Alice look-a-likes in long, blond tresses and high-waisted dresses. The National Ballet of Canada has been in London this summer to unveil its hit, ``Alice,'' to British audiences. Here, as at its premi`ere last year in Toronto and then in New York, critics have praised the production for its beauty and innovation.

Yes, it is based on the loved story created by Lewis Carroll, alias Charles Dodgson, in 1862, to amuse little Alice Pleasance Liddell on a picnic trip down the river Isis in Oxford.

And yes, we see the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and his tea party, the Queen of Hearts and her pack of cards, and all the splendid animal inventions, from Gryphon to Mock Turtle to Caterpillar.

But the ballet's creator, the renowned American choreographer Glen Tetley, has focused on an untitled poem that begins with the line, ``Child of pure unclouded brow,'' which precedes Dodgson's ``Through the Looking Glass.''

The poem alludes to that halcyon day he and the 10-year-old Alice spent together. Dodgson wonders if Alice will retain her memory of the day as he does. He voices regret that, being so much older, he will not know her as a grown-up.

Mr. Tetley introduces us first to the child Alice sitting on a mound enjoying Dodgson's company. Watching her from below is the grown-up Alice, who is now married to Reginald Hargreaves. All of them perform a lyrical pas de quatre.

Even though they dance the same steps, each expresses a different emotion. The child is full of youthful innocence and love of life. The woman holds back her feelings: She is stiff and correct with her husband, but at ease with Dodgson, indicating she treasures his genuine affection. He, in white, is at ease with both Alices. The Reginald Hargreaves character is a man unaware of the underlying currents passing between the others in the group.

``Alice'' is fascinating in its conception and charming in its presentation. It seems ideal for all ballet goers: For those wanting visual images, there are the traditional characters in wonderful costumes and a fairy-tale Alice. For serious dancegoers, Tetley brings out a new dimension in grace and freedom with his evocative choreography. It is full of gentle turnings, careful lifts, and tender feeling.

I saw the second cast of ``Alice'' and was as impressed by the quality of dancing as reviewers were by the original cast the night before. As the child, Sabina Allemann was pert and excited by the adventure of life, yet had the charm of a well-bred English child. As a dancer, she has uncluttered lines and moves easily.

The older Alice was danced by Gizella Vitkowsky who, too, presented a refined technique. Her costume of tulle with puff sleeves and slim bodice made her appear to float rather than dance, and she performed the complex character with great expression. It was quite a surprise in the final moments to see her as a very old woman, nearing the end of her days.

But the show is not just a sequence of emotional relationships: Delightful cameo scenes of Wonderland characters remind us of our own childhoods. We meet the White Rabbit in waistcoat and wire mask, nimbly danced by Owen Montague with fine leaps and jumps. This creature pops up as the harbinger of time, reminding Dodgson that time is passing and that he's late - too late to be part of Alice's adult life. The Mad Hatter's tea party sees slick slapstick and witty choreography, and the Dormouse runs like the Pink Panther!

The creatures' costumes (by Nadine Baylis) are excellent. The Caterpillar creeps and crawls in an elasticated stretch bag that looks like a Michelin tire but allows him to stretch and contract around the stage. The Lobsters, already cooked it seems, wear Jane-Russell-slinky outfits in (what else?), lobster pink, while the Mock Turtle wears what appears to be plastic rain gear over his shell - to keep him dry from his tears, I suppose.

The Corps de ballet does not have much to dance. But what they do (as birds, cards, and Alice look-alikes) shows disciplined technique, a firm base for the company to stand on.

Tetley was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning score of David Del Tredici entitled ``Child Alice: In Memory of a Summer Day'' for orchestra and soprano. Expressive and flowing (though often repetitive) the music and dance combine to produce an unusual but aesthetic new view of a favorite book.

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