In “Alice (in Wonderland),” Septime Webre’s trippy, dazzling new production for the Washington Ballet, the title character is not only a kid with a fantastic imagination — she’s also an adrenaline junkie.
As danced by diminutive dynamo Maki Onuki on Thursday, wide-eyed Alice can’t get enough of all the hijinks and hyperactivity she finds after falling down the rabbit hole. The plunge itself was a thrill ride, for Alice and the Kennedy Center audience alike: Playing cards tumble past, doors flap and dance, and among other hallucinogenic flying wonders, Onuki floats high above the Eisenhower Theater stage, and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee soar past on a tandem bicycle.
Soon Alice has jumped into a dance party hosted by a whirligig Dodo Bird, an elegant Eaglet and a leggy chorus line of flirtatiously pecking, prancing Flamingos. Onuki, being a hurricane-force technician and a ham, just about sucks up all the air in the theater as she whips off a storm of turns. But within a few beats of her last pirouette, her feathered friends have fled. Onuki’s Alice idly scuffs her feet and hangs her head. Poor, hyperactive thing is bored!
Luckily, we’re not (nor is she, for long), as Fish and Frog — footmen to Wonderland’s addled aristocracy — bound onstage, ushering in new larks with the Duchess, Cook and a litter of roly-poly piglets to steal your heart.
So it goes in this wacky ballet, a theatrical extravaganza whose charms don’t give out until composer/conductor/first violinist Matthew Pierce plays his last note of his beautifully realized score. (Yes, he plays violin while he conducts. Talk about wonders.) Webre’s account, which draws on characters and events from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” is a giddy parade, a pop-art dream, a feat of fevered imagination. And an instant hit: All performances, which conclude Sunday, are sold out.
The work is skillfully geared to children, although adult tastes are not ignored on the menu of visual splendor. Look no further than Sona Kharatian’s hot Queen of Hearts; she’s a domineering diva lacking only a bullwhip and a pair of underpants. (Peekaboo effect courtesy of her reptilian skin-suit, which, if it were any thinner, might cause her to catch cold. Luckily, with a coterie of shirtless consorts, she has plenty of warm bodies close by.)
But I digress. In this land of wonders, cuteness abounds. If the tot-size baby flamingos (tots courtesy of the Washington School of Ballet) don’t slay you, the fuzzy, somersaulting hedgehogs surely will. There is also a crop of darling daisies. The loudest applause on opening night, in fact, went to a student: a young Junior Card at the Queen’s second-act garden party named Noah Strand, 12, who glided through his showstopping solo with the crisp footwork and grand arm gestures of a prince. (He wore lucky number seven. Of hearts, of course.)
But in every aspect — tart, adorable and everything in between — this is a work of rich and impressive creativity. It is a tour de force for Webre, who choreographed dances in all manner of styles for a spree of personages and scenes that fill nearly four pages in the printed program. But, importantly, the Washington Ballet’s artistic director also conceived this project as a collaboration, and made wise choices in his three co-conspirators: costume designer Liz Vandal and set designer James Kronzer, in addition to composer Pierce.
Webre and Vandal are clearly soul mates. He favors jazzed-up energy — his conception of Alice is a vivid reflection of his own double-espresso-strength personality. Vandal’s costumes are a visual riot to match. Picture Victorian cuts in chaotic prints for many of the dancers but often with an acid edge. The sweetness of Onuki’s pouffy, blue minidress was mitigated by her blunt, peroxide-yellow wig and thickly layered false eyelashes, giving her some of the rugged sultriness of Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry.
Tradition waltzes with modernism throughout the ballet. Take Kronzer’s stunning all-white stage design, against which bits of decor are spare and restrained: banners that discreetly announce the scene changes, or a grinning, glowing moon for Alice’s pas de deux with the Cheshire Cat (on Thursday, this was the marvelous Luis R. Torres, with feline slinkiness and the strength of a bull). This clarity calms and balances the whole look of the ballet. Against the white background, the silhouettes of Vandal’s costumes appear in crisp relief.
Another key counterbalance to the heat of Webre’s choreography and Vandal’s frocks is the music. It is the crowning luxury of this ballet. What a treasure — a specially commissioned score, composed scene by scene in close discussion with Webre, and performed live by a string orchestra and percussionist. The cherry on top: Pierce’s visionary result, a shimmering landscape that weaves together bits of our own world — Asian, Middle Eastern, pop riffs, jazz — with a contemporary edge and a spirit of discovery. And, yes, wonder.
If there’s a message to be had in this ballet, it’s a simple one: open acceptance. As Alice bumbles along the wild yellow-brick road of Wonderland (at times, she and her cat, hatter and rabbit pals bring to mind Dorothy’s band in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”), she encounters each bizarre creature with welcoming enthusiasm. Twins with day-glo Dr. Seuss hairdos? What fun! Playing cards that cluster around for hugs? Bring on the cuddles!
Not even the Jabberwocky scares her, although Eric Van Wyk’s scarlet-winged puppet creation, carried aloft by seven dancers, is a marvel of glowing delicacy whose flight you will not soon forget. After all the excitement, and even dodging a beheading, Onuki, who has scarcely left the stage all night, still has energy to burn, leaving us with one last glorious arabesque.
And Webre has the courage to end not with a bang, but with a bit of understatement: As the curtain falls, we see our amped-up Alice curled contentedly in a chair with a book, absorbing its pages with those big, rock-star eyes. After unleashing such flamboyant physical wonders, the ballet returns us quite elegantly to the world of the imagination.
will be performed by the Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Sunday, with cast changes. Performances are sold out, although limited, standing-room tickets are available.