Arts Desk

The Washington Ballet’s ALICE (in wonderland): Worth the Obligatory Standing Ovation

You could say the standing ovation has lost some of its meaning. After all, just about any Kennedy Center show that's pretty decent or better can be relied on to bring folks to their feet.

But last night, the one the audience gave The Washington Ballet for its production of ALICE (in wonderland) felt utterly well-deserved. Crackling with energy and innovative movement, peopled by intriguing characters, and providing an incredible visual spectacle, the show was another feather in the cap for Artistic Director Septime Webre, who provided the vision behind the production and choreographed its movement.

The tale of Alice as she falls through a rabbit hole and becomes enmeshed in a bizarre world—who doesn’t know it? Which makes the story seem like a dull choice for a new ballet by the company, its first in two years. But the upside is that because the audience is familiar with the plot’s basic outline, the tale’s twists can be artfully implied through props and movement nuances rather than explicitly spelled out. Plus, it’s crowded with characters—especially if you add in author Lewis Carroll’s companion book, Through the Looking Glass—so there’s a lot to work with.

Webre went the distance. For two action-packed hours, a range of kooks, curiosities, villains, and kind companions parades across the stage, with many characters reappearing later in the action and giving the show the genuine feel of a journey. It’s all framed around Alice, of course, who is played by Maki Onuki with an eager girlishness that never loses its charm. But all of the tale’s major characters and many of its minor ones—dodo and eaglet, fish and frog footmen—are represented, and each conveys a unique personality through dance.

Webre is at his best when he deviates from classical ballet technique and embues the choreography with an energetic athleticism, and the show teems with innovative movement. A few of the best moments include an acrobatic, quasi-breakdancing duet between the dutchess and cook; a caterpillar who moves with serpentine sensuality; and a fresh, full-out unison sequence by a group of multicolored “doors.”

But arguably the show’s most impressive component isn’t its characters or choreography but its stagecraft. The excellent costume design is by Liz Vandal, who’s worked for Cirque du Soleil, and the entire ballet has more than a bit of Cirque’s eye-popping, imaginative three-dimensionality. So rather than falling into a hole when she follows the white rabbit, Alice rises high into the air as various characters, including Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee on a tandem bicycle, sail by. Later, the suggestion of deep water is conveyed by long ribbons of blue silk that waft and wave horizontally. And the Jabberwock—an intimidating dragon Webre adapted from Through the Looking Glass—is a massive puppet intricately maneuvered by a bevy of barely-seen men.

The whole thing is an incredibly creative spectacle, pure and simple, repeatedly bringing the audience to delighted laughter.

It’s not perfect, of course. An endless “caucus race” between flamingos, a dodo bird, and an eaglet feels like Webre’s hat tip to traditional ballet and goes on about three times too long. And the show as a whole leans pretty heavily on the cute factor, utilizing tiny ballet students as hedgehogs and baby flamingos to elicit reliable awwws from the audience.

Those are minor quibbles, though. Cheesy to say, maybe, but there’s something downright magical about ALICE (in wonderland) that achieves the goal of all performance: to transport the audience to another world for a few hours.

But the show plays to The Washington Ballet’s strength, a sunny, uncomplicated physicality. The company announced yesterday that its 2012-13 season will include an original production following Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises—an intriguing choice that should challenge the company, and Webre himself, to deepen and discover new complexities and darknesses.

ALICE (in wonderland) is showing at the Kennedy Center tonight at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 1:30pm and 7:30 p.m. All shows are sold out, though limited standing room tickets are available. Photo by Brianne Bland

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