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Milwaukee Ballet Gets Ready for ‘Alice (in wonderland)’

May. 10, 2016
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Photo Credit Tom Davenport

Milwaukee Ballet’s rehearsal room on National Avenue with its long wall of mirrors is crowded with around 30 dancers from the main company and the MBII training program. They’ve been at work all morning learning Septime Webre’s acrobatic choreography for Alice (in wonderland), the big-scale season closer at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. They’re sweaty and tired but the only way to learn these steps is to dance them full out.

They’re playing Playing Cards in the Queen of Hearts’ garden. The rehearsal director from D.C.’s Washington Ballet is correcting and encouraging them through an exhausting sequence. Each dancer swings a partner in a half circle while the partner executes a backward cabriole in midair. (As a kid in ballet school, we called them “scissors kicks” because you beat your straight legs together in the air like the blades of a scissors.) The twirling continues as the other partner executes a flying backward cabriole. The partners must maintain a perfect distance to achieve the greatest height and most dynamic line from the pointed toes of the flyer through the free hand of the supporting partner. The sequence ends in a comic series in which both partners alternately hoist their feet up, knees bent outward, at great speed. 

“All the way up, guys!” shouts the director over the music. “Somehow you have to get more underneath her! … You’re a really smart company but I feel like you’re rushing!”

Costume manager Mary Piering showed me what they’ll wear in the scene. The men have playing cards embossed across the tunics of their red unitards. The women wear their cards as floppy tutus. “Most of the adults play several roles so there are about 70 adult costumes. And there are 52 children in each cast. It’s almost Nutcracker proportions,” Piering says. The extravagant rented costumes were for the Washington Ballet premiere in 2012 by Cirque de Soliel’s Liz Vandal.

Alice was created by that company’s Cuban American artistic director of 17 years, Septime Webre. Now in demand across the country as a choreographer, Webre will retire from Washington Ballet in June to focus on making new work. He’ll be in Milwaukee to polish Alice in the final week. The composer Matthew Pierce will also be here to conduct his original score with the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra.

One of Piering’s favorite costumes is the White Rabbit’s thick waistcoat covered in watch faces. The many animal outfits and masks feature digitally printed realistic images of the creatures: Dodo, Eaglet, Frog, Fish or Flamingo. The Caterpillar’s royal blue body is textured with tiny black butterflies. It sprouts seven-foot wings in the scene, flies up and dances in midair. “Not since Peter Pan,” Piering notes.

Alice flies, too, as she falls down the rabbit hole. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee fly past her on a tandem bicycle. The charismatic Annia Hidalgo—brilliant in every show this year, her first as a Leading Artist—will alternate with Alana Griffith in the enormous role of Alice. It will be Griffith’s first principal role here. She began her training in her native Los Angeles, spent three years at the English National Ballet School, a year with MBII and has now spent two years as a company artist. She described the role:

“Alice starts off as a bored little girl. Her solo opens the ballet. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking how she and the audience have no idea of this journey they’re going on. Her family is really crazy. Her mother becomes the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll is a family friend. He reads her a story; she falls asleep; she sees the White Rabbit and jumps through a giant keyhole and then begins to fall. She changes so much throughout the ballet. She learns to stand up for herself. At the end she kills the Jabberwocky, the huge dragon from Through the Looking Glass. They put her on trial and she pushes everyone away and she’s back in her chair from the beginning of the ballet. She does another solo but now she’s full of wonder; like, what’s going to happen to me next? She’s more sure of herself, I think. She’s had to deal with the characters in Wonderland, especially the Queen who’s quite mean.”

Piering showed me the winged Jabberwocky, fiery and menacing, worn by seven male dancers, Timothy O’Donnell among them. “I swear it’s made of cast iron,” O’Donnell says. “You spend the whole time with your arms up. It’s epic!” Like all the men in this lift-heavy show, he says, “I spend about 80% of the ballet with my arms above my head and someone up there!” Dancer Patrick Howell who plays The Cheshire Cat summarizes: “I’ll be hiding my sweat behind my grin.”

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. May 19-21 and 1:30 p.m. May 21-22 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For tickets call 414-902-2103 or visit milwaukeeballet.org.

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