Cincinnati Ballet’s extravagant production of Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre’s Alice (in Wonderland) hits the Aronoff stage again this weekend, two years after the Cincinnati premiere, with live music from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cincinnati Ballet Music Director Carmon DeLeone.
Artistic Associate Johanna Bernstein Wilt and dancers Janessa Touchet and Cervilio Miguel Amador, who reprise their roles as Alice (the girl who goes through the keyhole and down the rabbit hole into Wonderland) and the White Rabbit (who takes her there), recently discussed their part in bringing this new style spectacle ballet to Cincinnati audiences.
Wilt has supervised every detail. For instance, up close, the fabric of Alice’s costume is embellished over and over with the character’s name. Wilt emphasizes that Alice is a full-blown production with fanciful sets, stage flying effects from Flying by Foy and colorful costumes with impressive detail designed by Liz Vandal, most noted for her work with Cirque de Soleil.
Webre drew his scenario from Lewis Carroll’s classic 19th century books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, and he packed in all the familiar characters, including the Queen of Hearts, Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter. The cast is huge, with children from the ballet’s academy as baby flamingos, piglets and hedgehogs.
“You know, it looks like it’s a such blast to dance in,” Wilt says. “And it is a blast. But the thing about Septime’s choreography is that he always makes it look easy and fun. It’s just jammed full of choreography. But it’s really solid, heavy technique.”
Some of the leads learned their variations on the very first day, but since then they’ve continued to rehearse. “Every single day,” Wilt says, “because it’s just that difficult.”
Wilt says that the character of the always-late White Rabbit is central to the ballet. “He’s Alice’s sidekick,” she explains, “and he is the one character that is with her through the whole story, from when she first goes through the keyhole to her slaying the evil Queen of Hearts’ Jabberwock, after which all the characters collapse like a house of cards and Alice wakes up from her dream back at home.”
It’s not a surprise that Touchet and Amador are cast in the lead roles of the ballet. With her delicious mix of delicacy and fierceness and his bravura technique, Touchet and Amador have become a go-to partnership for Cincinnati Ballet since 2004, when they first danced together.
“In our approach to dancing, we often think alike in our approach to honoring the movement qualities or listening to music,” Amador says. “We feel the same thing, so it’s easier for us to connect.”
It’s not natural, he says; it comes with years of working together. “It’s a little of me, a little bit of her, a back-and-forth.”
Touchet loves dancing with Amador. “I feel like people see that,” she says. “It’s always reinforced when we go on guestings [dancer slang for lead appearances with other companies] where people are not only amazed at what we can do, but that we actually look at each other and enjoy each other.”
Both Touchet and Amador agree that their roles in Alice (in Wonderland) are challenging, but with a payback. “There is a lot of crazy partnering,” Amador says, “not always easy to make clean and classical.”
Touchet agrees. “It reminds me of Victoria Morgan’s choreography. She’ll come into rehearsal and say, ‘This is what I’m thinking.’ Cervi and I just look at each other. Then we’ll really try to go there and do something so out of the box, something you’d never think would work. But it does.”
Both also believe the amalgamation of visual inputs make the ballet special. “I feel it’s more like a play or a musical,” Touchet says. “Or almost like a movie,” adds Amador. “But still ballet.”
Does Amador think all the extras are diluting the ballet aspect of today’s productions like Alice and Peter Pan (another production with strong scenic and visual additions that’s become a Cincinnati Ballet box office staple)?
“I think if you are using stories like Alice and Peter Pan, it works,” he says. “But if you were to try and take Giselle and make it Broadway, maybe not.”
“The world keeps evolving,” he says. “We can still respect the groundwork, and the classical. We can still do them and enjoy them, but we also have to keep moving forward.”
Cincinnati Ballet presents ALICE (IN WONDERLAND) Friday through Sunday at the Aronoff Center. Tickets and more info: cballet.org.