Washington Ballet to premiere new ‘Alice’ next season

The Washington Ballet will dance on the Turkish Riviera and bring a bit of Lady Gaga into the Kennedy Center in its 2011-12 season, the company has announced. Among the highlights are its first overseas tour in six years, a world-premiere production of “Alice (in Wonderland),” a program devoted to Twyla Tharp in honor of the choreographer’s 70th birthday and a run of “Nutcrackers” saluting the 50th anniversary of the company’s first production of the holiday staple.

The ballet doesn’t yet know if those “Nutcracker” performances paying tribute to founder Mary Day will be danced to a live orchestra. Budget constraints have led the troupe to dance to taped fare for the past two seasons, and Artistic Director Septime Webre said that while live music is “a priority,” it is not currently funded. But whatever the situation in the pit, onstage the scene will be especially festive, he said. Special guests will have cameo roles, and he will be adding bits of Day’s choreography to his own in honor of her fondly remembered version, which his Washington-themed one replaced in 2004. Performances will be in the Warner Theatre from Dec. 1-24.

Long before that, the dancers will spend a week this August on the Turkish coast to take part in the Bodrum International Ballet Festival, where they will repeat February’s “Rock & Roll” program, including Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster,” with songs by the Rolling Stones. The company will also reprise “Rooster” for the VelocityDC Dance Festival, Oct. 20-23.

If “The Nutcracker’s” orchestra prospects still hang in the balance, Webre has made smart decisions with the rest of the season to bring the company back in line with its strengths — high-energy contemporary works — while also treating audiences to live music, if in small doses. Starting with Webre’s plans for “Alice.”

“ ‘Alice’ is having a moment,” Webre said recently, noting the Hollywood treatment starring Johnny Depp and the various other versions of the ballet in circulation. Speaking in his light-filled office at the Washington Ballet building on Wisconsin Avenue NW, where a well-worn copy of the Lewis Carroll book sat atop his desk, Webre spoke of his fondness for the tale.

“The story is so rich — it has all the darkness in the world, and all the light,” he said. He has been eager to create another work for children since he made “The Nutcracker,” though his “Alice,” he said, will endeavor to appeal to grown-ups as well. Webre has commissioned a score from composer Matthew Pierce, to be performed by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. Liz Vandal, who designed the costumes for Cirque du Soleil’s “Ovo,” will put her hand to the “Alice” characters.

Webre, of course, is already swimming in ideas. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee will be very Lady Gaga,” he said with a grin. The Jabberwocky (borrowed from Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”) will be an enormous stage-filling puppet, and two dancers will create the gaping rabbit hole with a tunnel of fabric.

The ballet has to have “a strong physical expression,” he said. “My goal would be to ensure there’s a dance value to it.”

As for the rest of the season, Webre pointed out the absence of full-length 19th-century ballets, going against the trend in the current and past seasons. (Next week, for instance, the company assays “Le Corsaire.”) When he began scheduling those big classical ballets a few years ago, Webre said, “we were at a different level artistically, and there were subtle questions even among the dancers that we couldn’t tackle them. I don’t feel that way now.” Recalling Day’s support of longtime resident choreographer Choo-San Goh, whose unique style made an international name for the troupe in the 1970s, Webre said new works created especially for Washington Ballet dancers “are in the company’s DNA.”

That’s reflected throughout next season, which gets underway in November with the return of Webre’s 2010 production of “The Great Gatsby,” accompanied by a nine-piece jazz band. Performances will be Nov. 2-6 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. (For the first time, all Washington Ballet series besides “The Nutcracker” will be in the Eisenhower.)

An “All-American Tharp!” program Feb. 22-26 will include the company premiere of Tharp’s 1994 “Waterbaby Bagatelles,” with music by Anton Webern, Astor Piazzolla, John Adams and others; the popular “Nine Sinatra Songs”; and a third piece to be determined. The company returns to a well-received format with “Noche Latina,” May 9-13, featuring world premieres by Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Edwaard Liang, and the company premiere of Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba.”

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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