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Spectacle

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on August 31, 2012

Alice (in wonderland)
Choreography by Septime Webre
Music by Matthew Pierce
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
April 11-15, 2012 

“Noche Latina!”
Choreography by Edwaard Liang, Trey McIntyre and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater
May 9-13, 2012

By Lisa Traiger

Maki Onuki as Alice and Jared Nelson as the Mad Hatter in Septime Webre’s opulent spectacle “Alice (in wonderland)” for The Washington Ballet

Ballet has had no shortage of showmen over its centuries. From Louis XIV, who personified the god himself as Apollo in elaborate court pageants, to Petipa’s academic pyrotechnics and colossal productions, Diaghilev’s riot-inducing Russian seasons in Paris and Balanchine’s moderne spectacles – Firebird, Jewels and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, come to mind – understatement it seems can sometimes be overrated. That’s nearly always the case with The Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre, a showman extraordinaire when it comes to programming for his fine chamber-sized company of 18 dancers. Recent seasons he has given his audiences equal parts bombast and baubles with a “Carmina Burana,” featuring the Washington Cathedral Society chorus on two-stories of onstage scaffolding; a Broadway-boards-worthy The Great Gatsby complete with a tuxedoed tap dancer, a jazz singer and swing band that rose from the orchestra pit; a storybook come to life with super sized puppets in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are; and a Disney-worthy retelling of Peter Pan with flying by rigmasters Foy. This spring the company’s two programs continued that spectacle-minded showmanship that Webre so favors – and that has built a steady and boisterous crowd of younger-than-average ballet goers in a town where gray-suited government and politics are the trade. Webre is certainly market-savvy in drawing both a crowd of the twenty- and thirty-something, beautiful and stiletto-heeled, as well as Chevy Suburban-driving families.

His idiosyncratically titled Alice (in wonderland), is a case in point. Seen April 11-15 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, the ballet is a dizzying trip down the rabbit hole into a wildly psychedelic world for one of Webre’s favorites, Maki Onuki. Here this tiny slip of a dancer was all tarted up in a blond wig making the Japanese-born ballerina look like a cartoonish manga character.

Webre enlisted designer Liz Vandal, who conceived the outre look of the ultra-extravagant production [which cost upwards of $300,000]. A one-time fashion designer whose costume work has been seen on Montreal’s La La La Human Steps and Compagnie Marie Chouinard, along with the Backstreet Boys, Vandal’s recent designs on Cirque du Soleil’s OVO are more representative of the direction she’s taken with Alice: fantastic, whimsical, garishly opulent and, needless to say, memorable. From the traditional baby-blue dress the title character wears, Vandal’s conception – Victoriana meets Peter Max and Ziggy Stardust – creates unique and unforgettable worlds in which the storyboarded ballet unfolds, like pages turned in a children’s storybook.

In “Wizard of Oz” fashion, Act 1 is a study in monotones – whites and grays – until Alice escapes her family, falling into a Technicolor wonder world where hot pink flamingos and decks of cards dance, cartoonish cooks battle and bicker over salt and pepper, a spectacle-wearing rabbit, a fiery pterosaur-like Jabberwocky, and other odd assortments of creatures pop up during the episodic adventures. Like the “Oz” movie, Webre doubles his casting, so the family members of act I, become the fabulous creatures and characters of act II. Alice’s imperious mother with her withering glare returns as a black-widow of a Queen of Hearts, emasculating and fearsome, while her bespectacled father becomes the grinning and aloof Cheshire cat.

Lewis Carroll here plays a role, too, jumpstarting the title character’s imagination, but in a pas de deux there’s also a sense of awakening sexuality in the not-yet-woman Alice as tenderly danced by Jared Nelson and Onuki. Later Nelson returns as the Mad Hatter, resplendent in a vibrant patchwork suit a ringleader at the tea party gone awry. As the white rabbit, Jonathan Jordan leads young Alice into these vivid worlds where flowers dance, a sexily slithery caterpillar smokes a hookah, a Dodo Bird and Eaglet (Brooklyn Mack and Emily Ellis) dance a Petipa-worthy pas de deux, and bunches of thorny roses, the bristling corps with roses adorning their heads, are unceremoniously painted red to please the domineering Queen of Hearts, while little children somersault as hedgehogs in a croquet game gone wild.

Played out in a white box set designed by James Kronzer, silk drapes, unfurled painted banners and rolled-in flats provide much of the scenic variety, and along with Clifton Taylor’s candy-colored lighting, the stage itself often becomes a brilliantly rendered canvas in vivid colors. Matthew Pierce’s score for 10-piece string orchestra provides the backbone for the choreography, lending notes of poignancy and tempering some of the wildness of Alice’s journey with muted tones that are at once reflective and forward going. That he ventures astutely into jazz, pop, Middle Eastern and other rhythms and genres, keeps the listener alive in this multifaceted journey.

There’s much to absorb in this version of the Lewis Carroll tale and at times it’s hard for even an experienced viewer to know where to focus, there’s simply so much happening on stage. But who can resist an orange-haired Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum pair passing through on a tandem bicycle, for example? Or gaggles of eight and nine year olds dressed as playing cards, flowers and hedgehogs, as innocent as first-recital budding ballerinas, courtesy of the Washington School of Ballet. Or gawk as Onuki soars aloft, floating, and spiraling on a near-invisible line that allows her to “fall” gracefully into the rabbit hole.

Alice (in wonderland) is filled to the brim with stunning tricks, opulent and eye-popping designs, a top-notch score and, even, a bit of choreography among all the traffic. But like other Webre-stamped ballets, choreography is nearly beside the point. At center stands the extravaganza, the spectacle. And while the dancers dance their hearts out, the wild applause the audience offers up is for the production as a whole – a collaborative team that succeeded in crafting a stunning world to re-cast an old story anew. Finally, Webre gives our senses a rest: one simple moment after all the garishness of the proceedings have passed. Alice ultimately returns home and we get a final glimpse of Onuki curled up in a cozy armchair with a book. Repose after the chaos.

***

Sona Kharatian and Luis R. Torres of The Washington Ballet in “Noche Latina!”

The company closed its 2011-12 season May 9-13 with another sort of extravaganza. “Noche Latina!” draws on Latin American cultural constructs and allows Webre to explore connections to his cultural roots as a son of Cuban-American parents. In previous seasons, Webre has brought in Latin-inspired programming from the likes of Nacho Duato, Paul Taylor (“Tango Piazzola”) and the director’s own “Juanita y Alicia,” based on stories about his mother’s childhood in Havana. One year the vividly clad Mariachi Los Amigos mariachi band strolled through the theater serenading the audience during intermission like a South of the Border half-time show. This year’s Latin nights program felt much like a one-note wonder. If flinging ruffled skirts, snapping fingers, tightly held stances and imaginary bullfights account for everything you know about Latin dance, “Noche Latina!” will nicely fill your bill. Each of the evening’s three works played the same notes over and over again. And on a program that featured two world premieres that certainly is disappointing.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sueno de Marmol” (Dream of Marble) felt the least clichéd, likely because it opened the program, and yet, with its run-of-the-mill theme of riffling through memories – in this case by walking among a garden of marble statues that come to life – it left little to really ponder. The company’s tallest, and most commanding presence, Luis Torres was the centerpiece of not only this work, but much of the evening. In “Sueno,” which translates to “Dream of Marble,” he was expectedly introspective, wandering through the fog and still-life of posed dancers clad in white – women in tiered skirts, men showing pecs in sheer body-hugging tops.

As a dancer or two caught Torres’ fancy, they moved together into small variations, Torres in traditional black and red transforming easily from sensual to moody to playful in this nicely wrought memory piece. Lopez Ochoa provides her dancers with lush and full-bodied phrases that they can really sink into discovering expressive fodder. A great compliment for a new choreographer is how comfortable the dancers looked in a work and here she knowingly captured their strengths without highlighting weaknesses.

Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba” uses late 1960s pop music versions of Astrud Gilberto’s easy-listening pieces. Think “Girl From Ipanema” and you’re there. In fact Aurora Dickie was that girl in this piece, followed by two of the company’s playfully sexy men – Brooklyn Mack and Zachary Hackstock. But “Samba,” like more than a few of McIntyre’s works, comes from the school of too many steps. With plenty for the dancers to do, lifts, balances, complicated jumps and footwork rush past in a sometime flurry that the samba – cool, calm, undulating hips – gets lost. A samba should feel like a walk on the beach – languid, feet sinking into sand, hips shifting softly, giving into the rhythm sexily with each step.

“La Ofrenda,” an evocation of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which celebrates folkloric traditions of honoring dead spirits, closed the evening returning to the skirt shaking, hand-clapping, hip-jutting school of imitative Latin dance. Choreographed by Taiwanese-born Edwaard Liang, the work looks like it used a video cabinet full of “Don Quixote” and “Carmen” DVDs as fodder. Torres once more played a central role, and the company joined as interchangeable spirits, roused to drink, clap, stomp feet, imitate a bull fight and the like. Paired with tiny Onuki, Torres made it easily look like he was dancing with a spirit wisp as he wound her around his body, held her aloft weightless before allowing gravity to take hold and pull her back to solid ground. Again, Torres seemed caught in a memory dance – this time one sometimes wild but always passionate – with spirits, while a village of crafty and boisterous souls let loose for him to tangle with. Decorating the somber stage were Spanish artist Cristobal Gabarron’s white skull-like mask cutouts, lending sometimes sinister, sometimes comic effect to the work.

The evening’s most vital performance came at intermission. Famed Colombian singer Toto la Momposina was joined by her cumbia band, Sus Tambores. They rose out of the orchestra pit with a wild jangle of rhythms, she gorgeous in yards of colorful cloth and a head wrap, brightening the evening with multilayers of syncopated rhythms and her deep-throated vocals. It was enough to make you stand up and get your hips shifting, pumping, swaying to the beat – something ballet doesn’t do nearly as well.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of the quarterly magazine Ballet Review and is republished with kind permission. To subscribe, send a check for $27 to: Ballet Review, 37 West 12th St. #7J, New York, NY 10011.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger
Published August 31, 2012

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