WMC, Cardiff

Wed 4 May


There’s a certain evocative appeal to Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Simultaneously nostalgic to a bygone culture and to our own childhoods, the texts capture worlds which are distant yet tangible – just like the worlds within our own dreams. Charmingly archaic in their Victorian contents yet embroidered with fitting neologisms, strangely logical portmanteaux and unexpected truism, the novels take us to unexpected places accompanied by the comfort of the familiar. If wonder is an active state and dreaming is passive, it is Lewis Carroll’s writing that bridges the boundaries, so it is not the characters we remember so much as the way in which they are brought to life in black on white.

Testing the boundaries of literary adaptation, in this production by Scottish Ballet the author, Charles “Lewis Carroll” Dodgson, is brought into the story. Unable to communicate the words themselves, the company try to compensate by incorporating the act of writing and so we witness Dodgson leading his nervous protagonist through the events which he has supposedly conjured. This inclusion, together with references to the physical book scattered throughout the performance, makes Alice not just a retelling, but a silent echo which experiments with recreating the wonder of the Alice books minus the one thing that made them most wonderful.

The piece is not without its intelligent moments. Modelling the ballet’s literary inspirations proudly, the backdrops change like turned pages. The Duchess’s kitchen is a particular highlight. With sketched crockery on simplistically-drawn black and white brick walls, this scene is reminiscent of the art of John Tenniel, the original illustrator for the text. The idea is that characters come alive from the two Alice novels, yet the absence of further interaction prevents this notion from becoming fully accomplished. By neglecting to acknowledge the tension between fiction and reality and refusing to continue these associations, the dancers fail to become masters of their literary universe, rendering the choreography disjointed from the concept.

In its problematic attempts at forcing a new visualisation of this classic tale, this muted performance illustrates the undeniable importance of words in the Alice stories. In Carroll’s text, we are asked ‘What is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?’. As it twists one of our favourite novels, adopting its illustration and its characters but denying us its verbal power, this ballet begs the question that lies between Carroll’s lines: What is the use of a book, without words?

first published on

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