Tag Archives: Alice in Wonderland

Preview: Alice in Wonderland, Avant Chamber Ballet

Avant Chamber Ballet puts its classical technique and acting skills on trial in Alice in Wonderland at Dallas City Performance Hall this weekend.

acb-alice
The 2014 production of Avant Chamber Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

Dallas — One by one the eight dancers place their hands on the waist of the person in front of them as they step into a wide second position. After a slight pause, the group slinks off stage as one using small, synchronized steps. If you are familiar with the characters in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which follows a girl named Alice after she tumbles through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar creatures than you can probably tell that the eight dancers are personifying Absolem, the Hookah-smoking caterpillar.

It was clever of Artistic Director Katie Cooper to use multiple dancers to depict the caterpillar in Avant Chamber Ballet’s (ACB) presentation of Alice in Wonderland which comes to Dallas City Performance Hall Feb. 11-12. Not only do the dancers get to show off their exemplary adagio skills, including sustained balances, graceful arm placements and fluid movement transitions, but the human-made caterpillar also gives Cooper the opportunity to play around with the dancers’ musical timing, something that Cooper is well known for along with her meticulous attention to technical details and imaginative use of space and movement patterns.

A prime example of Cooper’s artistic attributes can be found in the Flower dance, which resembles the Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker both in costuming and the dancers’ fluid movement quality. But unlike most traditional ballets Cooper doesn’t like to use the corps as stage ornaments; instead she prefers to have them moving on the sides of the stage at all times. She also likes to feature the corps in in various geometric traveling patterns and opposite movement sequences that pay homage to Cooper’s Balanchine roots.

Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

Cooper’s balletic interpretation of the classic children’s tale sticks close to the original story with Alice chasing the White Rabbit into Wonderland where she encounters a host of eccentric beings, including Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and of course the Queen of Hearts, who sentences Alice to death after she insults the Queen during a game of croquet. Cooper puts her own spin on the story with the addition of a human-made caterpillar, dancing mushrooms, a tea party gone haywire and a Greek chorus representing jurors in the trial scene.

While Cooper says little has changed choreographically since ACB first presented Alice in Wonderland back in 2014, she points out that viewers will notice substantial changes in both the venue and cast size. “Dallas City Performance Hall is quite bigger than Bank of America Theater in the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts,” Cooper says. “This allows us to have larger casts and do a few effects and stagings the way I really wanted to do last time, but there just wasn’t enough space.” She adds, “The Company has also grown so there will be more professional dancers and children in the show this time around.”

Today, ACB has more than 15 company members from all across the U.S., including California, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Texas and Virginia as well as a few international members hailing from Russia, Ukraine and Japan. The production also feature 60 young dancers from studios across the Metroplex, including Park Cities Dance, Mejia Ballet and Legacy Dance Center.

Company members Madelaine Boyce and Yulia Ilina will reprise their lead roles as young Alice and the Queen of Hearts, which not only suit their physical appearances, Cooper says, but also their individual personalities and technical tendencies. “Physically Madelaine looks like the almost perfect Disney Alice, but I also choreographed it just for her so it is very suited for her. And I can’t picture anyone else doing the Queen as well as Yulia Ilina. She is tall and long limbed so she literally towers over Alice. But Yulia is also a great comedian and actor, which might surprise you if you’ve only seen her in tradition ballerina roles.”

I got to see Boyce in action when I sat in ACB’s rehearsal of Alice in Wonderland at Park Cities Dance in Dallas last week. (Ilina was unable to attend this rehearsal). Boyce was very quiet and focused as she stretched her limbs before practice. Even the way she adjusted her hair and tightened her ballet skirt was accomplished in a calm lyrical manner. Cooper has wisely chosen movement phrases for Boyce that complement these individual traits, including long, sustained reaches, smooth shifts in epaulement, complex foot work and thoughtful gesturing.

Like the rest of the company Boyce also exhibits an excellent ear for music, a skill Cooper put to the test in rehearsal by switching out the musical recording for one with a slightly faster tempo. Boyce barely blinked an eye before speeding up her turns and battements to match the new tempo. The score is written by Chase Dobson (now Mikayla Dobson) and features the piano and strings, and will be performed live by members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Brad Cawyer.

Working on this ballet has also given Cooper the opportunity to reflect on her own artistic growth and that of her dancers over the last three years. “When we did Alice the first time I spent almost half a year on it. I still have my big binder of all the steps I wrote out and meticulously planned. At this point, I trust my own ability and creativity more. I don’t go into each rehearsal for a new ballet with quite so much structure.” She adds, “My dancers have also grown tremendously. At a small company like ours everyone has opportunities in casting that are sometimes few and far between in large groups. That can push you as a dancer in a very good way.”

Avant Chamber Ballet presents Alice in Wonderland Feb. 11-12 at Dallas City Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District.

<< This preview was originally posted on Theaterjones.com.

 

 

 

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Review: Avant Chamber Ballet, Alice in Wonderland

Photo: Sharon Bradford/The Dancing Image
Photo: Sharon Bradford/The Dancing Image

Ambitious Alice

Avant Chamber Ballet closes its season with a simple yet sophisticated rendition of Alice in Wonderland.

Richardson — A bench, four dancers, a projection of a small yet intricate painting of a cottage and a nine-piece orchestra situated to the right of the audience set the scene Saturday evening for Avant Chamber Ballet’s first full-length ballet, Alice in Wonderland, at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson. At first the show’s minimal use of scenery and props was surprising, but ultimately it opened the door (or rabbit hole) for ACB to showcase its effortless classical technique and solid pointe work.

The first half of the show is very character-driven; a feat that comes naturally to most of the dancers. Artistic Director Katie Puder enhances these roles with innovative individualized movements and subtle gestures. Madelaine Boyce was the obvious choice to play Alice due to her physical resemblance, but her ethereal facial expressions and youthful energy also proved her deserving of the lead role. Her solos were punctuated with elongated lines, sturdy pique arabesque holds and soaring grande jetes. As the White Rabbit Juliann Hyde was only on stage long enough to capture Alice’s attention before checking her pocket watch then executing a double knee jump into the wings.

Once Alice falls down the rabbit hole she encounters a quirky group of characters, including Tweedle Dee and Dum, the Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse and finally the Queen of Hearts. Meanwhile the projection image has changed to depict a vibrant garden. As the background color changes, signaling a new character’s arrival, the eye is drawn back to the projection where the color change highlights a different floral color, creating the illusion that the picture has changed.

This part of the show is reminiscent of the scene in The Nutcracker in which representatives from each country come forward to perform a cultural dance. While their timing was a little off, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (Kayla Giard and Emily Igoe) catered to the younger audience members with their combative antics and over-the-top acting skills. Long and lean, Dallas Blagg had the right look for the Caterpillar. His solo was the most technically challenging with multiple turning double tours into consecutive grande jetes. Bryan Cunningham was a commanding presence in his role as the Mad Hatter and Brittany Bollinger’s over exaggerated gestures and expressions as the March Hare made up for some of the timidness displayed by other company members. In one instance the music, which was composed by artist-in-residence Chase Dobson, seemed to overpower Rachel Meador’s (Cheshire Cat) movements.

The second half contained what was missing in the first—group dance sequences and dancer Yulia Ilina. As the Queen of Hearts Ilina stole the show with her impeccable pointe work, regal pose and authentic character embodiment. Audiences were riveted to her long legs, supple feet and strong upper body frame. When she gets angry with Alice during the croquet match she visibly tenses; her movement slow and deliberate as she runs her finger across her neck and points at Alice. I don’t know if it was Ilina’s energy or the dancers overcoming their jitters, but the whole cast transformed during the second half. Meador grew more confident and started playing with the audience as she sneaked around the stage. Jumps appeared higher, arms reaching farther as the music swelled and peaked.

Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image
Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

Puder’s penchant for uniformed body angles, visually pleasing shapes and clean pointe work was present throughout the program, but especially in the flowers and deck of cards numbers. This also applied to the younger cast members. Dressed up as mushrooms, these little ones earn bonus points for straightening behind the knees and pointing their toes. The whole company comes together for the cleverly-crafted trial scene where each character describes their encounters with Alice before the Queen of Hearts. Chaos quickly ensues and Alice is able to slip away and follow the White Rabbit home.

The live orchestration, exceptional technique and crisp choreography showcased in Alice in Wonderland  is what viewers have come to expect from Avant Chamber Ballet and what we hope to see more of in the future.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

Total Madness

Photo: Courtesy
Photo: Courtesy

Dancer Bryan Cunningham on his role as the Mad Hatter in Avant Chamber Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland and the pros and cons of being a freelance dancer.

Richardson — With the competition better than ever and the number of jobs dwindling, a lot of ballet dancers are taking the freelancing route in order to survive. “To be a successful freelancer you’ve got to have a good personality and be able to adapt to new situations pretty quick,” says freelance dancer Bryan Cunningham.

Originally from West Virginia, Cunningham trained at North Carolina School of the Arts, School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet Academy. After high school he joined Cleveland/San Jose Ballet. When Cleveland Ballet closed its doors in 2000 Cunningham called around to other dance companies to see if they had any openings. His take-charge attitude has guided him throughout his career which has also included Kansas City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Madison Ballet and Florida Ballet. “My career path has been my own doing.” In some cases instead of waiting to be let go Cunningham went ahead and made his own plans. “You have to be smart and watch for the signs.”

After six years working in the ballet world, Cunningham took a break and headed to Las Vegas. He gave his notice without lining up another job first, something he says he would never do today. “In the early 2000’s the economy was better and there were more dance jobs readily available especially for men. Today, dance jobs are harder to get so I would never leave a job unless I had something else lined up.”

In the end his gamble paid off when he was cast in the Las Vegas show New Boy. After four years with the production Cunningham realized he wasn’t going to go any further so he decided to return to ballet. It was during his time at Madison Ballet after this that he met current Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) company member Madelaine Boyce. His connection with Boyce helped him obtain his most recent job playing the Mad Hatter in ACB’s new ballet Alice in Wonderland, April 12-13, at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson. The production features original choreography by artistic director Katie Puder for a cast of 46 dancers and a commissioned score by composer-in-residence Chase Dobson for nine musicians performed live.

Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Sharen Bradford
Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Sharen Bradford

“I didn’t know Katie personally, but I have seen some of her work and she has a really good reputation, so I was excited to come to Dallas and work with her.” Even though Cunningham has been freelancing for a while, he says it’s still nerve-racking to walk into a room where you are the odd man out. He adds in this case the company was very open and accepting of him. “Not only is the company made up of good dancers, but they are also good people.”

While Puder’s choreography in the show is predominantly classical, Cunningham says she keeps the dancers on their toes by reversing movement and repeating certain phrases starting on the other foot. Puder also has the company practice to a couple of different recordings of the music to prepare them for the live orchestration. “Katie is so clever. She doesn’t tell us which recording she is going to play so, we could be running the tea party scene and I’ll notice that the rhythm is a lot quicker and all I can do is adapt.”

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.