This weekend Lillie and I were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to see the Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in rehearsal at the Royal Opera House. It was one of the most exciting days possible for Lil, who wants to be a ballerina and loved Christopher Wheeldon’s new take on the surreal tale when it was broadcast on television late last year (in fact it was almost too exciting and she was several times threatened with not going at all ‘if you can’t calm the hell down’). It was equally exciting for me, an Alice aficionado (and so, admittedly, the threat was idle).
The performance has been adapted somewhat from the Alice of 2011 the better to suit families with fidgety children, meaning two intervals and no more than 45 minutes sitting still. While I can’t speak for other people I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary, the middle portion of just 26 minutes finishing when it did was somewhat unexpected and Lil was quite keen to get on with the story (‘I only just HAD a wee!’), being quite used to visiting the cinema to see films of 90 minutes, plus 3.7 weeks of adverts beforehand. And yet despite these changes, and the fact of Alice’s status as a children’s classic, Lillie was among only a handful of kids in the audience – all girls between the ages of five and ten, all quite patently middle class.
It’s a shame that still now the ‘high arts’ can be so prohibitive. Through no fault of the Opera House or the Royal Ballet and, in fact, in spite of their best efforts, an experience like this is still beyond the grasp of most families on middle and lower incomes. Not only that but it’s still often an uncomfortable experience to take children to the theatre or galleries, not because of the staff but other visitors, who can be very tut-and-stare. Conversely staff at London attractions, and some outside of the capital (though less so), are charming with children, here at the ROH Lillie was handed the tickets by the door staff, asked directly if she wanted a booster cushion – rendered useless by the tallest man in London two rows ahead – and served her drink in a grown up glass; all things that make Mums melt.
I don’t know exactly what the prices are or whether the Royal Opera House has schemes in place to put ballet and opera within the reach of lower income visitors or those with children, and their somewhat difficult to use website appears not to know either, but it is cheering to find it so comfortable a place to be with a child while not being subjected to more churned out kid-friendly dross. The bold, bright fun of Wheeldon’s Alice is engaging for even the youngest audiences and the fact that most children will be aware of Lewis Carroll’s tale, or it’s Disney offshoots, negates the difficulty of understanding a story told through dance, while the the splashy vignettes as Alice moves through Wonderland work well as independent stories.
Choreographer Wheeldon has come under criticism for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with dance critics complaining at the lack of complex ballet on show. What those critics fail to realise (or perhaps what they bitterly do) is that Alice isn’t for them. While Lillie, a wannabe ballerina, would undoubtedly have loved to see a chain of perfectly executed fouettes, she could see those at a dance showcase – here a story was told not just with dance – tap, much to Lil’s delight, included – but with a stunning set (based, I think, on how my house would look if my husband let me do whatever I wanted), impressively simple special effects (the oversized puppet Cheshire Cat was greeted with gasps and chuckles) and clever costumes (I require a copy of the Queen of Hearts ‘dress’ to be pushed around town in please). More importantly, with effortless ballet and great expression, the cast brought one of my childhood’s and now Lil’s most loved stories to life. And I like to think that the opinions of Lillie and her compatriots might be just ever so slightly more important to the people behind Alice than those po-faced old hacks requiring MORE JETTES.