Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Royal Opera House, London
The Centaur & the Animal, Sadler's Wells, London

Curiouser and curiouser...a Victorian tale stuffed with wordplay makes for an instant classic of modern ballet

The Royal Ballet has staked an arm and a leg on its latest venture.

No one's saying how much it cost – these days that might seem tactless, even though the National Ballet of Canada is shouldering some of the burden. But this is also a big emotional investment for the Royal. It's the company's first new full-evening work for 16 years; its first full-length new musical score for 20. It has been two years in the making and is a final throw of the dice for its director, Dame Monica Mason, soon to retire and hoping for a lasting legacy.

And in Christopher Wheeldon's creation she's surely got it. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a thing of exuberant wit and scale, stacked with vivid ideas delivered with pace and panache. Only a curmudgeon would complain that it's more of a show than a ballet, with its sweeping cinematic score, tap-dancing Mad Hatter, War Horse-style puppetry and dazzling digital projections – an eclecticism that harks back to a time when ballet productions used every new effect going. What's more, this populist showcase has the potential to overturn the most entrenched antipathy to dance. Its two hours whisk by like the scut of a rabbit.

This is especially creditable given that, for all its whacky characters, Lewis Carroll's narrative is not an obvious fit for dance. Much of the book consists of puns and riddles, along with digs at Victorian education, with its endless learning by rote, divorced from understanding. The production's single nod to that theme is the jumble of alphabet letters that hurtle alongside Alice in the vortex of the rabbit-hole (dizzying screen graphics by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington). Otherwise it's all action and character, some of which gets a bit lost in the hectic telling, leaving you wondering whether Act I really needed a scene change every two minutes, or quite so many elaborately whiskered and individualised animals.

When the choreographer comes to revise the piece in future seasons, he might bear in mind that sartorial tip beloved of women's magazine editors. Before going out for the evening, look in the mirror and take one thing off – a couple of dozen, in this case. Steven McRae's hoofing Mad Hatter is a joy, but he didn't need a horse-drawn travelling theatre stage to do it from (isn't it meant to be a tea party?) or a giant cup-cake trampoline that only gets bounced on once.

That said, the shaping of the narrative (by writer Nicholas Wright) is masterly. His added prologue anchors the factual Alice Liddell in her wealthy Oxford home, where her parents' guests – including Lewis Carroll himself, a visiting Indian dignitary, and a monstrous dowager aunt – reappear transformed in her dream. The unfair sacking of the affable gardener's boy, Jack, for stealing jam tarts, cleverly sets up the ultimate courtroom scene where Alice defends the Knave of Hearts (and falls in love with him in the course of a Nutcracker-esque pas de deux). It's all very neat.

The best of Bob Crowley's designs draw gasps and grins in equal measure. The Duchess's cottage that opens up to reveal a hell's kitchen of a sausage factory, in which Simon Russell Beale's Duchess capers gleefully among the pig carcases. The Queen of Hearts' enormous shiny red pepper of a dress, opening on hinges to reveal the hen-pecked King cowering at her feet. The flamingo girls at the croquet match, one hand forming the beak and the other the tail. The dear little hedgehog children who curl up to be croquet balls.

Wheeldon plays similar games with the choreography, with a parody of the Rose Adage, Zenaida Yanowsky's greedy, psychotic Queen grabbing a jam tart from each of her three cavaliers, scoffing them as she goes. More extended pleasures include a brilliantly patterned set-piece of a game of cards, the girls' felt tutus spelling out their suit (diamonds, clubs, spades) whenever they bend over.

As in many 19th-century ballets, you have a wait for the meatiest dance material, and it's not till near the end that Wheeldon stretches his central couple: in the first cast, a pleasingly spirited Lauren Cuthbertson,and elegant Sergei Polunin. We could have done with more of him.

But the real engine powering the show is Joby Talbot's score, a storming piece of work spiced with exotic woodwind, James Bond brass, and an ironmongers'-worth of percussion, deployed with thrilling climactic control, wonderfully played under Barry Wordsworth.

Equestrian theatre is a rarity on British stages, and I'm rather glad of that. In France, the veteran horse-trainer Bartabas is a celebrity, and his theatrical creations, starring his four-legged protégés, are regarded as art. The Centaur & The Animal has been at Sadler's Wells for the week, and is a truly spooky affair: the stage shrouded in semi-darkness, from which silently-shod beasts loom and retreat, while a naked Butoh artist, 60-year-old Ko Murobushi, distorts his body into crabbed, agonised shapes, and a heavily accented voice narrates the stream of consciousness of a leper, complete with revolting descriptions of pus and flaking skin.

It takes all sorts, I suppose. Me, I prefer my horses running in a field.

'Alice': in rep to 15 Mar (020-7304 4000); 'Centaur': tonight (0844 412 4300)

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert is intrigued by Teddy and Topsy, a one-woman show about Isadora Duncan

Dance Choice

Champion of the story-ballet, David Nixon's latest for Northern Ballet is a three-act Cleopatra, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Expect steamy gymnastics and an asp. At Edinburgh Festival Theatre (Thur to Sat) and touring. Meanwhile, catch Ailey 2 on tour at Truro's Hall for Cornwall (Mon & Tue), and Belfast's Grand Opera House (Fri & Sat).

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album