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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre - Alice in Wonderland Premiere

by Steve Sucato
April 18, 2008
Benedum Center for the Performing Arts
719 Liberty Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 456-2600

Featured Dance Company:

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (office)
2900 Liberty Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15201
412-281-0360
www.pbt.org

The North American premiere of Derek Deane's Alice in Wonderland by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre proved a production of wonderment, both good and bad. The 2-act "Disney-esque" spectacle was filled with fantastical visual effects by Paul Kieve, fanciful costumes and sets by designer Sue Blanc patterned after Sir John Tenniel's original drawings from Lewis Carroll's 1866 book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and an abundance of charm. Unfortunately, the amount of choreography was stingy.

Created in 1996 for the English National Ballet, Deane's version of Carroll's iconic tale was essentially a grand children's ballet. That suited the predominately youthful audience at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center for the Performing Arts quite well. While the ballet might very well have been a disappointment for some adult audiences, it did include brilliant stagecraft.

Set to a piecemeal Tchaikovsky score arranged by Carl Davis, the ballet opened with Alice, danced by PBT principal Kumiko Tsuji, playfully trying to get her sister's (Alison Kappes) attention away from a book she was reading. Undaunted by Alice's interruptions her sister continued to read her book as Alice, distracted by a fleeting glimpse of a mischievous white rabbit, danced by principal Christopher Budzynski, wandered off after the rabbit and down a rabbit hole. The scene of the two in whirlwind descent into the hole was the first of many ingenious illusions designed for the ballet.

Large props such as a teapot and clock flew by a stunned Alice. A myriad of the many characters Alice would soon meet on her adventure flashed before her eyes as the visually intense scene came to a halt with Alice standing in front of a stage full of varying sized doors.

Given such an auspicious opening, the production appeared to have the makings of a great adventure. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the ballet failed to live up to that beginning. The ballet's first act found Tsuji as Alice, engaged in stage movement rather than outright dancing. She scampered from scene to scene meeting new characters from an eaglet and monkey to frogs and a crab. Deane's ballet took its cues from the familiar story line in Carroll's book with some modifications.

Highlighting the remainder of the first act was Alice's encounter with a hooka smoking caterpillar (Aaron Ingley) that performed a slinky dance that ducked low to the ground and was set to music a la The Nutcracker's Arabian dance. Continuing along those lines, the caterpillar conjured for Alice a "Garden of Living Flowers" in which Deane's choreography for its dancing flora and four pansy couples was reminiscent of "The Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker. Deane later in the ballet included an even more obvious homage to another ballet classic, Swan Lake with his "Lobster Quadrille" a take on the "Four Little Swans" dance. Also of note in act one was Alice's visit to the home of the flamboyant Duchess (Gabriel Smith) and Cook (Julia Erickson) that provided a modicum of comic relief. The visit included the cook stirring up sneezes by peppering each character, and a version of the comedy chestnut "hot potato", using a baby pig as the pass around item.

In perhaps the best section of the ballet outside of the Alice's arrival down the rabbit hole, the Mad Hatter's tea party was infused with magical effects such as a large teapot that poured itself, a bench that moved whoever sat on it, and some of the best choreography and dancing in the ballet. Christopher Bandy as the Mad Hatter, principal Maribel Modrono as the Dormouse, and Luca Sbizzi as the March Hare all performed spectacularly in several lively and interesting solo dances.

The ballet's second act proved similar to the first with Alice continuing her travelogue of adventures in wonderland. In it, Alice attended the Queen of Hearts croquet match where she was smitten with the Knave of Hearts danced by principal Christopher Rendall-Jackson. Tsuji showed off her expert pouting skills during the scene as Alice disrupted the sinister Queen's (Kaori Ogasawara) game by stealing the (stuffed) animal used as a croquet ball and was scolded for doing so.

After a visit to cheer up a mock turtle and a dream sequence featuring Alice's alter ego (Alexandrea Kochis) dancing with the Knave, Alice returned to the Queen of Hearts palace where the Knave was on trial accused of stealing tarts. More chaos ensued and the ballet ended with Alice waking up, her sister nearby still reading her book.

Despite Deane's dance stingy choreography overall which vacillated between appearing academic and being truly creative, Alice in Wonderland worked as a children's ballet. Its high quality visual effects, innocent charm, the development of even the tiniest role, and the performances of PBT's dancers proved a success in bringing Carroll's cherished tale to life.
Artists: Christine Schwaner, Eva Trapp Ric Evans, Paul G. Wiegman, and Bill Cooper (Courtesy of English National Ballet) contributed images used in this composite photo.

Artists: Christine Schwaner, Eva Trapp

Ric Evans, Paul G. Wiegman, and Bill Cooper (Courtesy of English National Ballet) contributed images used in this composite photo.

Photo © & courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

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