By Steve Sucato
As humans we are taught there are no limits to our creativity. While in theory that may be true, ask any working choreographer and they will tell you that the realizations of their creative endeavors almost always come with limitations. Compromises due to current technology, the abilities of artists they are working with, and most often the monetary costs involved. Such is the case for Edwaard Liang’s new family-friendly production of ALICE, being performed by his Columbus, Ohio-based BalletMet, February 14-16 at the city’s Ohio Theatre.
As is common for mid-level ballet companies to save on production costs, Liang and BalletMet have purchased costumes and sets from another production instead of making their own originals. They come from Septime Webre’s popular Alice (in Wonderland) that Washington Ballet debuted in 2012. Montreal-based designer Liz Vandal, who has worked with Cirque du Soleil created the 530 fanciful costumes used and James Kronzer the ballet’s whimsical set elements. For Liang, in creating his new ballet, that meant he would be somewhat constrained by those very costume and set elements.
“While we don’t follow the same narrative [as Webre’s production] and we don’t have the same musical score,” says Liang, “The commonality is whatever characters he [Webre] decided to create for his production are only what we have available for ours.”
Apart from the sets and costumes, Liang’s new production, like Webre’s, will be a mash-up of characters and events from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking-Glass” (1871) books. Additionally, Liang will incorporate story elements from former BalletMet artistic director Gerard Charles’ 2006 Alice in Wonderland production for the company. The 2-act ballet throughout will bounce between storylines and characters from the two books with more of an emphasis on book one. Liang also chose not to use some of the characters found in Webre’s production including the pig babies, humpty dumpty and others. One character he kept not found in many existing “Alice” ballets will be the Jabberwocky from Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”.
The ballet is set to a compilation of music from English composers Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst arranged and edited by Oliver Peter Graber. While Liang’s libretto for the ballet will be very familiar to audiences, he changes things up a bit in the tea party scene where he has added more characters and where he plants the seed of a possible romantic interest between the characters of the Mad Hatter and Alice.
“In Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” there isn’t any sort of crush or romance,” says Liang. “It’s all about madness and the wild absurdity of Wonderland.” Liang says he sees his version of Mad Hatter as sort of a Sisyphus character and the tea party scene his rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it to roll back down when it nears the top, repeating this for all eternity. In this recurring loop of a scene, he says “I wanted a hint of humanity when Alice and Hatter are close together in a dance and she touches him, waking him briefly from his madness,” says Liang.
Entrusted with conveying this heartfelt moment as Mad Hatter will be South Bend, Indiana-native Michael Sayre in his 7th season with BalletMet. Sayre will perform the role for the February 14 & 15 evening performances.
“There is not a very heavy emphasis on a romance between Hatter and Alice in the Tea Party scene,” says Sayre. “But as it progresses it builds to a point where it is clear there is an unrequited love going on.”
Sayre will also factor into another of Liang’s changes for the ballet, a beefed up dance scene for the Cheshire Cat character that he will dance for the February 15 & 16 matinee performances.
“The Cheshire Cat dances with Alice for a bit and there is a substantial solo for him,” says Sayre.
Liang says he wanted to keep his new version as much of a dancing production as possible. That can also be seen in the character of the White Rabbit who receives a lion’s share of dancing in it says 3rd year company member Jim Nowakowski. The Rochester, New York-native will dance the White Rabbit role for the February 14 & 15 evening performances.
“I am onstage a lot and have a variation full of bravura jumps and turns,” says Nowakowski.
In addition to the aforementioned dancers, the large cast for the 2-hour production will include BalletMet and BalletMet 2’s full complement of dancers along with trainees and students of the BalletMet Academy. Add in some puppets, dancers flying and special effects and BalletMet’s new ALICE should prove a highly entertaining start to a new year in dance.
BalletMet performs ALICE, 8 p.m., Friday, February 14; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., Saturday, February 15 and 2 p.m., Sunday, February 16. Ohio Theatre, 39 E State St, Columbus, Ohio. Tickets $52-94. Visit balletmet.org for tickets and full casting.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.