Moments before last night’s world premiere of ALICE (in wonderland), Septime Webre bounced onto the Eisenhower Theater stage as he has done so many times before. Dressed in a blue velvet waistcoat, much like the Mad Hatter might wear to Alice’s ‘Tea Party,’ the Washington Ballet’s Artistic Director thanked supporters, then warned the audience to, “Buckle your seat belts for a wild ride.”
Based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass – the ballet turned out to be more of a family road trip right out of a Chevy Chase movie. Lots of drama, adventure, laughter, childish pranks, and crazy antics kept both young and old delighted throughout the two act show. Add to this eclectic work a bevy of pink flamingos a la Busby Berkeley; a flying dragon who keeps trying to bite Alice; a nutty professor who bungles everything around him; and perky piglets, the children at the Washington Ballet School, all rolling around the floor and through the legs of other strange characters.
Webre is a master storyteller through dance. When he directed the New Jersey Ballet before coming to Washington, he created a visually dazzling Romeo & Juliet. His personal tales of his family in Cuba brought tears to an audience in Havana, and the recent revival of his Great Gatsby made the Best 10 list of local critics.
Now we await the 2012-13 season opener, Dracula. Let’s hope he brings back the Alice team, led by concept and Costume Designer Liz Vandal, Set Designer James Kronzer, puppeteer Eric Van Wyk, Lighting Designer by Clifton Taylor, and composer Matthew Pierce, and, of course, his lead dancers.
The first cast (splendidly costumed and gloriously danced) includes Maki Onuki (Alice in a blue dress and blonde wig) Sona Kharatian (Queen of Hearts extraordinaire), Noah Strand (her boy toy), Jonathan Jordan (the adorable White Rabbit), Luis R. Torres (a slick, sensuous and strutty Chesire Cat), Brooklyn Mack (high-flying Dodo Bird), Andile Ndlova (a twirling, leaping frog), and Jared Nelson (a gentle Lewis Carroll).
Alice (in Wonderland) is big and glossy, more a show than a ballet. Webre’s choreography sometimes has to fight for attention with the wit of designs and staging, helped by Pierce’s danceable score – reminiscent at times of Philip Glass. You get the feeling that his music could accommodate any kind of dance imaginable.
As expected, the first act centers around tiny Alice who flies across the stage, thanks to the folks from Foy, and joins the White Rabbit in pleasant dance variations. A puppet Alice dangles above the stage, doors grow and shrink, and Alice tries to squeeze through one of them, to the delight of the youngsters in the audience. The surprise, however, comes with the appearance of a drug-induced Caterpillar who shows no interest in childish gimmicks. Her seduction is powerful and intense, influenced (as we learned at the post-show party) by Webre’s visit to a hookah bar in Turkey where the company performed last summer.
In the second act (a more traditional take on classical ballet), some of the leading characters are upstaged by a dancing card, a young boy who managed to pull off five beats of his feet in the air before landing gracefully. The music rips for the playing card ballet when the entire stage is filled with dozens of colorful characters. It ends as it begins with Alice alone on a living room couch, bathed in gentle blue lighting.
There’s a lot riding on this Alice as the season’s grandest production. Certainly the ballet is an unforgettable journey down the Rabbit Hole and should be seen at least twice. Let’s hope it becomes part of the Washington Ballet’s repertory, perhaps an alternative to Webre’s other children’s fantasy, The Nutcracker.
Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
ALICE (in wonderland) plays through this Sunday April 15th at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.