ALICE IN WINTER WONDER LAND at Zuiderstrand Theater, Den Haag

Classical ballet has always figured very large at Christmas, most commonly in the form of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The Netherlands is one of the leading countries in the world in the field of contemporary dance and the oddly named Dutch Don’t Dance Division have managed to nicely combine the two strands in their spectacular and original Alice in Winter Wonderland.

Carl Davis’s 1995 arrangement seamlessly brings together various other pieces from Tchaikovsky, melding them into a ninety-five minute piece suitable for ballet. The piece was commissioned and first performed by the English National Ballet, though DDDD’s version has new and original choreography and their wonderland bears no relationship to the Victorian very English labyrinth with which we are all familiar.

Owing more to M.C. Escher than to Lewis Carroll, Rinus Sprong and Thom Stuart’s imaginary world is inspired by, and pays homage to, the Dutch artist whose impossible structures and mind-bending images are as familiar as those of Sir John Tenniel who illustrated the original book.

The strange world into which our unsuspecting Alice falls is accessed through a series of giant moving staircases which spin and twirl around the stage, gradually disgorging and introducing many of characters which we shall meet later. Based on Escher’s Relativity lithograph of 1953, in which we are never sure whether the stairs are going up or coming down in a house that has no top nor bottom, the imagery provides a perfect vehicle in which to transport our heroine to her brave new world.

It is Relativity and another lithograph, Three Worlds, which are the dominant images throughout the piece, although there are sequences when some of Escher’s metamorphosing fish/birds and interlocking lizards are recreated by a stage-full of dancers.

In the first half we are introduced to all the familiar characters like the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and The Duchess, like a pantomime dame, who glides effortlessly around the stage seemingly on casters. There is a special guest appearance from Escher himself at the beginning and it seems what he is jotting in his sketchbook is materialising on stage as we watch. Most of the artist’s work was monochrome prints, either lithographs, etchings or woodcuts, so it is not surprising that black and white is the predominant theme in the décor and costumes. The wide-screen stage of the Zuiderstrand Theater provides the perfect frame, allowing the huge company – I reckon there must have been getting on for eighty all together – the space to move freely and for the décor to be omnipresent without being overpowering.

The second half was much more cohesive, taking place on a giant chess board with all the pieces doing a little dance by way of introducing themselves. It was here that the principals and many of the soloists had the chance to excel, the outstanding being Adji Cissoko as the White Queen. There were lots of youngsters in the huge company, including some very small children who couldn’t have been more the five or 6. They all danced beautifully, never putting a foot wrong in some quite complicated choreography. They inspired lots of ahhhhs and rounds of applause whenever they appeared. There was one sequence in the first half were all the dancer were parading in a seemingly endless procession across the stage like an army going off to war.

The chess game rather degenerated into a bit of a free-for-all after the White Queen got rather angry at having been taken by a black bishop but then things quietened down, the stage cleared and the snow started to fall. It was now time for Mr Escher, nicely danced by Rinus Sprong, to reappear and have a charming pas-de-deux with Alice who was beautifully and convincingly danced by Kenza Lee.

The Residentie Orkest, under the baton of Dane Lam, was excellent throughout and, like the dancers, never put a foot wrong.

Dutch Don’t Dance Division’s Alice in Winter Wonderland is an innovative, ambitious and sometimes breathtaking production which I, along with the sell-out audience at the Zuiderstrand Theater, thoroughly enjoyed.  Truly spectacular and highly recommended – if you can get a ticket.    

Michael Hasted   26th December 2018