Lewis Carroll was the godfather of surrealism, so it’s no surprise the lead in the Kansas City Ballet’s “Alice (in Wonderland)” calls the upcoming production “quirky.”
“There are crazy lifts where I’m being held upside-down and one-handed; there is a scene where I stand on a guy’s shoulders and do a trust fall,” dancer Laura Hunt said. “So it’s not necessarily your typical classical ballet stuff.”
With its unusual sets, costumes, choreography and score, “Alice (in Wonderland)” captures the surreal spirit of Carroll’s works “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.”
Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre, who created and choreographed the production, told The Star he embraced the strangeness from the start.
“The book is filled with so many outrageous characters that are just extravagantly off-kilter,” Webre said by phone from D.C. “We tried to make decisions that would celebrate the trippy aspects of Carroll’s books. We wanted to capture that wit and outrageousness.”
Devon Carney, starting his second season as the Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director, said the show is a wild ride.
“And it gets crazier and crazier the further into the show you go,” Carney said.
Bring on the pink flamingos
Carney brought “Alice (in Wonderland)” to the Cincinnati Ballet in 2012. He commissioned composer Matthew Pierce to rework the original score, expanding from a 12-piece chamber arrangement to a full-on, 60-piece symphonic work.
“The sound is so much fuller” Carney said.
A standard-sized symphony, though, is about the only conventional aspect to this production. Unusual stage elements abound. There’s a dancing deck of cards, a giant Jabberwocky puppet, and a huge and elaborate psychedelic steampunk wardrobe designed by Liz Vandal.
Known for her work with Cirque du Soleil, Vandal created more than 130 costumes for “Alice,” with nary a tutu to be found. Her Cheshire Cat boasts a coat of black and purple tiger stripes. The hookah-smoking caterpillar is clad in a dark unitard of iridescent spandex.
“She does really well with a chic fashion perspective on period,” Webre said of Vandal. “The costumes are really contemporary and feel like high fashion, but with a period aspect.”
The choreography, too, is an unconventional melange, merging traditional ballet with contemporary ballroom, modern and even a dash of hip-hop.
The multifaceted choreography is difficult for classically trained dancers, using movements and shapes they don’t often practice in their daily maintenance classes. There are pirouettes en pointe, bits of waltz, aerial acrobatics and a line of dancers dressed as pink flamingos, spoofing a famous scene in “Swan Lake.”
Carney said the choreography is especially challenging for male dancers.
“There are twice as many roles for men as women in the piece,” Carney said. “Alice encounters almost all male characters throughout work.”
Plus, Carney said, the male dancers must bear both women and props, functioning as a sort of living background.
The joy of being evil
Laura Hunt, who plays Alice, said the most challenging parts of her role are its intellectual and emotional demands. Facial expressions in traditional ballet can be blank and generic. Alice emotes.
“Differentiating my expressions and emotions is just as important as executing the steps well,” Hunt said.
But the performers relish the demands the parts require.
“I really enjoy being evil,” Angelina Sansone, aka the nefarious Queen of Hearts, said with a laugh. “The queen has this kind of controlled rage. She’s very polite and regal on the surface, but cross her and she turns on you. It’s like ‘off with her head!’ It’s fun.”
“Angie,” she said, “is very good at being evil.”
Lewis Carroll loved to create new words for his books, and Carney came up with his own description for the ballet.
“It’s fantasmical,” he said.
But we’re not sure if that’s the correct spelling, because Carney, embracing Carroll’s imaginative playfulness, said, “Spell it however you want.”
“Alice (in Wonderland)”
The Kansas City Ballet presents “Alice (in Wonderland)” Oct. 10-Oct. 12 and Oct. 17-Oct. 19 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $49 to $119 through KCBallet.org.