The Oregon Ballet Theater’s ambitious presentation of Alice (in wonderland) choreographed by Septime Webre and composed by Mathew Pierce was a tremendous exercise in theatrical and choreographic ingenuity. The intricate sets and costumes were on the verge of distractingly dazzling in every act. The rich complexity of Lewis Carroll’s dark, layered fairytale lends itself perfectly to a ballet where, in the absence of dialogue, imagination and tantalizing imagery combine to tell the tale of Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole.
Alice opens with our heroine draped over a dusty armchair in her iconic Bianchi blue and white dress (that is Pantone 332 or robin’s egg blue for those outside the Portland cycling scene). She stirs from her sleep and moves through the first two scenes like a puppet on strings, Ansa Capissa as Alice, tiptoes languidly, she is in the clouds while aristocratic relatives rush around her and Lewis Carroll begins to tell his tale. We transition from a classic, detailed interior facade to an enchanted forest as trees, the entire height of the stage, drift into place. You can feel the journey beginning when Carroll and Alice hoist a rowboat onto their bodies and somewhat clumsily move across the stage. A touch of humor is a nod to the absolute foolishness that is about to begin. Alice dozes and then down she goes after the white rabbit, expertly danced by Thomas Baker.
If there is one scene from Alice in Wonderland that poses the most challenge it must be the Eat Me/Drink Me epic, yet, the task is taken on and rendered beautifully with aerial acrobatic assistance. The set transforms to a background of colored pentagrams and dancers reminiscent of Crayola crayons holding doors, that Alice is so desperately trying to open, come to life. The choreography changes from classic ballet to Bhangra dance and we are held captive in Alice’s frantic search for the key. After a ‘Drink Me’ banner cascades from the rafters, Alice takes a swig of her liquid and rises into the air on wires, her dress extends down towards the ground, billowing out to reveal Alice-sized mechanical feet, ready to anxiously tap as she watches from above. A cast of small children, who dance identically to their adult counterparts, replace the full-sized dancing doors. So not only does Alice ascend but the world around her shrinks, an ingenious achievement on a grounded stage. As predicted, an ‘Eat Me’ banner furrows down and Alice melts back to the floor and a giant red door, slides onto the stage. Alice cannot even reach the first carved panel. Throughout the entire scene Capissa is expressive, she emotes her frustration like a child but is backed by artful ballerina cadence Finally, Alice must resign to the fact that her mind and body are playing the cruelest of tricks on her, she sits, weeps, and we are swirled by her tears to a new set.
Creating an onstage swimming scene is a cinch compared to the previous drama. Blue fabric flutters from end to end of the stage, gently waved by dancers in the wings. The waving fabric is reminiscent of youth gymnastic days when everyone would flutter a large, colorful parachute and take turns running underneath. Alice and the Dormouse are held horizontally by their helpful dancer friends and gracefully do the back and breaststroke. We meet the Dodo Bird and Eaglet who prance with us to the next scene—the caucus roce spectacle is complete with a crew of flamingos. As the number begins to unfold, the choreography is natural and beautiful. This is Webre’s genius, the dancers are not moving like they were directed to dance like birds, mice, or rabbits; Webre created choreography that matches how a bird, mouse, or rabbit would dance if it were put in ballet slippers onstage. This subtle difference is what makes the movement and artistic direction in Alice so special, the bounds of reality are tested and the anthropomorphism is incredible. The flamingo spectacle features impressive solos that solicit encouraging audience applause.
The final highlights of Act I are undoubtedly the Advice from a Caterpillar scene and concluding Tea Party Boogey. Again, dancer Katherine Monogue as the opium smoking Caterpillar contorts her body as if we were watching a real caterpillar wriggling on a log. She languidly tumbles over four dancers who effortlessly carry her above their heads while gliding across the stage. It is as exciting to watch Monogue’s acrobatics, as it is to see the supporting dancers multi-tasking with such ease. At the closing of the dance, periwinkle fabric wings burst forth from Monague as she fully blossoms into a doped out butterfly.
In the grand close of the first act, Alice fully emerges as the stubborn, slightly punk child that is familiar from Carroll’s tale. The Mad Hatter’s entrance is slightly underwhelming and the abrupt switch to jazz music is a left turn. The slow, almost sensuous movements feel out of place during the fun, wild rumpus. However, the final dance is an epic homage to Debbi Harry and her band of boys in Blondie. Alice and her animal crew spring onto the long table, dancing in unison to an upbeat score with modern choreography The curtain closes on our leading lady and supporting ensemble silhouetted on the table—perfectly freezing the wild and whimsical tea party for the audience to chatter about during intermission.
Act II is shorter than the first act and feels rushed. It seems the integration of the Red Queen and battle with the Jabberwock was not fully developed into the narrative. The curtain rises on a stunning rose backdrop and we see the Queen’s playing card henchman frantically painting the white roses red. The scene nicely parallels Alice’s struggle opening the dancing doors in the first act. The weaving of the card between playfully dancing roses is very clever. The Croquet Game is chaotic yet pulled together nicely by the dominant Eva Burton as the Red Queen. The highlight is the ensemble of playing cards dancing with articulated movements like only playing cards would. The personification of the two-dimensional cards was as skillfully executed as the choreography given to the animals. The reappearance of the young dancers elicits more oooos and ahhhs from the audience (almost as if they have never seen children before). The petite dancers stumble out as hedgehogs being hunted by the Red Queen in her deadly game of croquet. Alice’s frantic attempts to hide the cowering hedgehogs only enrage the Queen further. Alice is swept up in a dancing circle of the courtiers trying to capture the elusive ballerina. The swirl of costumes and color is a dramatic finish to the first dance of Act II.
The forest of towering trees reappears as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee glide across the stage on a chartreuse tandem bicycle. The tranquility is quickly interrupted by the appearance of the Jabberwock. The mythical creature appears as a medieval dragon in its dress with the movement of a Chinese dragon processional. The dragon bobs up and down as Alice heroically attacks it in a very King Arthur fashion. The scene sticks out as an anomaly because it is far more theatrical as opposed to the light and lyrical dances that proceed it.
In an unmemorable transition, we are back at the Queen’s court where Alice faces execution for her defense of the hedgehogs and defeat of the Queen at her own rigged game. With a stamping, furtive dance, the court and white rabbit fight over the fate of Alice. The dramatic fall of an “Off with her head” banner freezes the scene and the stage goes black. Sleepy Alice rises from her Victorian chair dazed. Then she slowly, dreamily, stretches her aching limbs.
OBT presented a phenomenal production of a classic story with no Dinsey gimmicks and a high level of artistry. The ballet was a testament to the imagination and creativity of Webre, Pierce and the entire cast and crew. Much like a beautiful dream, you really don’t want OBT’s Alice (in wonderland) to ever end.