|The cast of Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Photo by Dave Morgan.|
I shall never tire of singing the praises of the Royal Opera House. The company has been blazing such a trail into social media and cinema, spreading an appreciation of the arts through every platform possible. For far-flung-fans like myself, this literally means the world -- where the subtlest emotions on a stage far away can cross the 10,000km distance to move me. I was lucky enough to be in Covent Garden twice this year (for a Wheeldon Extravaganza and the profoundly phenomenal Zenaida Yanowsky Manon), but ROH further filled the rest of my year to the brim: with live streams of La Traviata, Moved by Myth and the incredibly insightful World Ballet Day. Even something as simple as their Twitter hashtags have helped me to enjoy every show vicariously. Through these efforts, ROH is reaching not only dispersed ballet and opera die-hards, but entirely new audiences as well.
Their final gift this Christmas season was a live streaming of ZooNation's Mad Hatter's Tea Party -- the first full length hip hop commission by the Royal Ballet, which is meant to complement Wheeldon's Alice currently on the main stage. If hip hop and the Royal Ballet sound odd together, Director Kate Prince explains it best: "when the music plays, however you dance, you've just got to respond to how you're feeling."
In this Alice-verse, our favourite characters are all patients in a mental institution, with an uncannily common experience of a place called Wonderland. The protagonist is Ernest, their therapist, played by Tommy Franzen (whom I came to know from Kim Brandstrup's hauntingly beautiful Leda and the Swan). Act 1 has a biographical solo for each character: a possessive pair of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum dance-battle it out for a rattle, a sultry Queen of Hearts with supposed anger management issues comes off strangely more man-eater than manic, a confused Alice has an identity crisis, and a twitchy White Rabbit has OCD. Corey Culverwell as the White Rabbit was the most impressive of the Wonderlanders -- performing a skittish, neurotic piece of lyrical b-boying that conveyed his exhausting obsessions. With Culverwell just 18 years of age as well, all I wanted to do was give this ingenuous, troubled rabbit a hug. Duwane Taylor's Chesire Cat was another highlight, switching between cool head-bobbing to Reggae, and popping to heavy electronic beats, as he brings his fellow patients to a frenzy.
In the face of this chaos, Ernest is a bewilderingly useless, if not detrimental, therapist. He plasters a superficial antidote over Tweedle Dee/Dum's possessiveness by giving each a rattle, essentially enables Alice by ingesting her potion and cupcake, and utterly baffles me by drawing a picture of a rabbit to quell the White Rabbit's OCD. I suppose this ineptitude is just what causes his own descent into Wonderland, as he loses control of first the room, then his mind, at the end of Act 1.
As he unravels, Franzen proves what an authentic dancer he is. His body fights with itself as he tries to stay immune to the insanity, his legs begin moving as if independent of his body as they acquire a taste for Wonderland, and he gnaws at his sweater vest in frustration. He ends Act 1 by moving into a slow mixture of popping, b-boying and general flailing that is truly quite heart wrenching. In the first half of Act 2's garden tea party he comes across completely stoned, dancing with the same intriguingly passive somnambulism that he demonstrated so well in Leda. It truly is as if he's dancing while fast asleep. Finally, he strips off all his clothes just as he strips off reality, exposing some funky polka dot boxers and bumblebee singlet that unlock his inner Mad Hatter, giving in to Wonderland with a joyful abandon. Boy, do I love good dance actors.
Most integral to the evening's amazing performance is its riveting music. The surprisingly versatile band (with composers Josh Cohen and DJ Walde) invents a unique sound for each character and place, traversing every genre with songs that are upbeat and contemplative in turn, and which you can't help but want to dance to. Their greatest creation is a piece for the Dormouse, here a puppet emerging from a teapot, lamenting about how narcolepsy just gets in the way of life. It was awesomely trippy, and not just because it was 4:30am in Singapore by that point in time.
All in all, it was an utter delight. While I didn't always understand the characterisations or the storyline, it's a small matter in a piece that's mostly meant to get you pumped up and transport you to the colourful, energetic world of Wonderland. A terrific Christmas gift from ROH. And as if live streaming it wasn't enough, they've also made the whole invigorating performance available on demand. Enjoy it here on YouTube!