Washington Ballet plunges down rabbit hole

It’s one thing to teach a group of preening pink flamingos to dance. Or even the piglets, hedgehogs and an unruly hand of playing cards.

It’s quite another to tell the Jabberwocky what to do.

“I want him to come over and bite Alice in the [behind],” announces Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet. He’s leading a rehearsal of “Alice (in Wonderland),” his new ballet based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.” In Webre’s conception, the jaw-snapping flying dragon swoops onstage at the end of the ballet and wreaks havoc at a royal garden party.

That’s a reasonable expectation, but considering the Jabberwocky is a giant puppet the size of a hang glider — at full wingspan it nearly fills the rehearsal studio — maneuverability is tricky. Seven dancers carry the creature: one supporting each wing, three holding up the body, one swinging the tail around and another guiding the head. More versed in pirouettes than in puppeteering, they’re struggling to control the many-jointed bamboo-and-carbon-fiber behemoth looming over their heads.

“My hands are cramping,” laments one.

“Wings up! Wings up!” shouts Eric Van Wyk, the puppetmaker. “What’s the motivation for the head? It needs to go low, and then chomp-chomp-chomp.”

On cue, other cast members dive and pivot around the puppet as if they’re running for their lives as it flies toward them. But Webre, singing out the musical counts, has his eye on another set of wings — the curtains hanging on the sides of the stage. Gracefulness must be maintained, even in this melee:

“Guys, make sure you don’t hit the wings,” he cautions as the puppet pack swivels the beast around for its departure. “Ballerinas and Jabberwockies should never hit the wings on their exit.”

With all the outsize props and decor in this production — the psychedelic-Victorian costumes are a show in themselves — Webre is anxious to keep the action elegantly streamlined. It is, after all, a ballet. The world premiere is Thursday; performances will continue through April 15 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.

But overseeing such a multilayered creation is a bit like trying to control that Jabberwocky. Every element of the ballet is new. Matthew Pierce is composing the score, sending scenes to Webre on almost a day-by-day basis. It’s an eclectic piece: the Cheshire Cat scene is jazzy in a 1960s TV crime show way; the music for the Caterpillar was inspired by a visit Webre made last summer to a hookah bar in Instanbul. James Kronzer designed the all-white stage and bright, graphic backdrops.

Liz Vandal, whose work Cirque du Soleil fans know from the recent “Ovo” show, designed the costumes, 130 in all. They’re extravagantly theatrical, and more three-dimensional than you usually see on dancers. This is thanks to high-tech fabrics that are stiff but also lightweight and stretchy. Many are specially printed: There’s snakeskin for the villainous Red Queen, and a checkerboard of top hats for the Mad Hatter’s waistcoat.

“I think Septime came to me because he knows I’m a bit crazy,” says Vandal, reached by phone at her home in Montreal. “And he likes to innovate.”

Betting that all this innovation will sell, the Cincinnati Ballet and Ballet Hawaii have already signed up to license the production for their dancers next season.

Webre has been envisioning an “Alice” for years. A deal with the Colorado Ballet to commission a production from choreographer Christopher Wheeldon fell through several years ago for lack of funds. (Last year, Wheeldon created a version shared by the National Ballet of Canada and the Royal Ballet; the Canadian company will perform it at the Kennedy Center in 2013.)

After delving into the romantic tragedy of “The Great Gatsby” in 2010, Webre wanted to change gears for his next ballet, and with his taste for high energy and humor, creating an “Alice” of his own seemed perfect. Certainly, it’s no stretch to imagine Carroll’s fantastical characters and brisk action translated into music and physical play. His story has been fodder for choreographers going back to the 1950s, with Michael Charnley’s production for the London Festival Ballet, narrated by legendary dancer Anton Dolin.

As the ballet world has awakened to the lucrative family entertainment market, “Alice” has become a popular venture for student troupes and pros alike. Webre’s ballet combines both. A self-described Peter Pan, Webre says he relishes working with children again, as he did when creating his “Nutcracker” several years ago. Some 100 students from the company’s affiliated Washington School of Ballet will populate the new work as flamingo chicks, daisies and other adorables.

“I click with kids,” says Webre. He attributes this to a childhood with eight siblings, and to what he wryly calls the “arrested development” of a dancer’s life, with its bohemian existence, poverty and collective dependence on the parental figure of a company director.

Now he’s that parental figure, sitting behind a desk in his sun-filled office. But boyishness is not far behind him; at 50, he could be an overgrown kid in his T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, a sweep of dark hair rising untidily off his forehead. Webre’s inner tween is in full swing as he describes how Alice will grow big (with pulleys and unfolding fabric, like the “Nutcracker” Christmas tree), and how the Dodo Bird will wash onstage in her pool of tears. He grabs a stack of Vandal’s sketches and pages through the doors that dance, the “dominatrix” Queen and a garden full of ballerina-roses, studded with thorns and wearing tipped-up shoulder pads.

“Definitely Lady Gaga roses,” he says, flipping on.

For the characters of Fish and Frog, Webre asked Vandal to channel “Mick Jagger and David Bowie meeting in 1982.” Instead, the costumes look like the spawn of Bowie and Elton John — Ziggy Stardust suits, military shoulders and oversize sunglasses.

But amid all the hallucinatory effects, Alice herself stands for something serious.

“There’s definitely a statement about girl power,” Webre says. “She’s not just a cute little 7-year-old; she’s wise and strong.” In a scene inspired by Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” film, the affronted Queen unleashes the Jabberwocky on the girl and Alice has to slay it, “like Joan of Arc.”

If the child heroine has an element of saintly valor to her, the rehearsal Webre presides over a few minutes later shows off more of her antic side. Maki Onuki will dance the title role, and though she’s 27, her diminutive size, round face and large, expressive eyes make her easily believable as a youngster.

This is especially true in her scene with Luis R. Torres, a tall, muscular dancer who plays the Cheshire Cat. Slinking his hips and rippling his shoulders, he’s a little Bob Fosse, a little burlesque. He nuzzles Onuki’s legs, paws at her arms while gazing adoringly into her eyes, and finally snatches her up like a cat with a mouse and tosses her high over his head. She whirls in the air — Webre calls it the “rotisserie chicken lift” — before Torres catches her again.

“That’s a pretty aggressive pas de deux,” Onuki acknowledges a few minutes later. “But it’s easier for me to be like a kid than to be elegant. Softness is more challenging.”

Other scenes unfold: In one, a decidedly upright, lanky ensemble of women — they’re the flamingos, used as mallets in the Queen’s croquet match — is preening and strutting through Webre’s witty parody of the avian corps in “Swan Lake.”

Onuki has a blistering solo here, leaping across the space and finishing with a high-speed series of fouette turns and pirouettes. When she’s finally finished whirring around like a fan blade as the music builds to a driving climax, the room bursts into applause.

“Maki, that’s amazing,” says Webre, speaking for us all. Onuki, sinking onto a bench with her chest heaving, flashes the thumbs-up sign.

When it all comes together, this plunge down the rabbit hole may leave its audience just as breathless.

Alice (in Wonderland)

at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, with a preview Wednesday at 7:30 and opening Thursday at 7:30 p.m., repeating Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30, and April 15 at 1:30 p.m. Closes April 15 at 7:30. Music by Matthew Pierce, choreography by Septime Webre, costume design by Liz Vandal, scenic design by Jim Kronzer, puppets by Eric J. Van Wyk, lighting design by Clifton Taylor. Tickets $50 to $155, at www.washingtonballet.org and www.kennedy-center.org, or 202-467-4600.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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