Dallas — Over the last six years Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) has proven itself to be a real asset to the Dallas arts community. In addition to its cast of uniquely-talented dancers and mixed repertory of original and traditional ballets, ACB is also the only professional ballet company in North Texas currently offering live music at every performance: a feature that has been appreciated by audiences as evidenced by ACB’s move to the larger Dallas City Performance Hall (DCPH) for its entire 2016-17 season. After attending ACB’s presentation of Alice in Wonderland at DCPH last Saturday night, it is clear that the venue is a good fit for this continuously growing company, both physically and artistically speaking.
Having seen ACB’s first run of Alice in Wonderland at the Bank of Atlantic Theater at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in 2014, I was looking forward to seeing what changes Artistic Director Katie Cooper had made to her first original full-length ballet, which depicts details from both Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel and the 1951 Disney movie in two well-balanced acts. Even through Cooper said previously that little has changed choreographically with the production, some repeat viewers might have a hard time believing this after seeing the show. I know technically a lot of the ballet steps were the same, but the dancers delivered much stronger performances this time, which added fresh, new qualities to their movements. Also, the company’s performance caliber has improved substantially in these three years, which, especially in the major roles such as the Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter, changed the look of their movement in positive ways.
Shea Johnson (Caterpillar) and Texas Ballet Theater’s Drake Humphreys (Mad Hatter) are both powerful performers and dance partners in their own rights. Their solos were packed with jumping passes and turning sequences, and their partnering sections featured breathtaking lifts with Madelaine Boyce (Alice), Lauren Hibbard (March Hare) and Natalie Anton (Dormouse). Kaitlyn McDermitt also put her own spin on the role of the Cheshire Cat with her mischievous facial expressions and exaggerated cat impressions, including licking her paws and playing with her very long purple tail.
Another big change from three years ago was the number of cast members in this production. The larger space at DCPH enabled Cooper to use 60-plus students and professional dancers as opposed to the original 45. The extra space was also more conducive for Cooper’s eye-catching formation changes, well-timed pick up movements, fast pointe work and using the corps dancers in multiple facets, including the Caterpillar’s legs and the Queens roses. And instead of cumbersome props, Cooper cleverly choose to use the younger cast members as moving embellishments in scenes such as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the Queen of Hearts croquet game.
Dressed in green leotards and flower-shaped head pieces, the young dancers in the Tea Party scene swayed their heads side to side and lower and lifted their arms in time with the music. They also subtly changed formations from clumps of three and four to straight lines on the both sides of the stage. This evoked flowers moving in the breeze and was a welcome surprise.
Boyce did a commendable job leading the action in the show, especially in the first half, which did not feature as many large group dances. Instead Boyce, Natalie Kischuk (Alice’s Sister) and Juliann McAloon (White Rabbit) had the tough job of filling up the stage with their movement and energy while also conveying their characters to the audience in very direct and real ways. Boyce accomplished this task with a musically enchanting solo which featured Misha Berestnev on piano. The lyrical rhythm of the music was emphasized by Boyce’s graceful lines and fluid epaulement during turns and sustained arabesques. And McAloon enthralled viewers with her quick jumping passes, featuring jetes, pas de chats and grand pas de chats. And unlike the previous venue, Cooper had grander lighting effects at her disposal such has patterns and more colors combinations. While the bold lighting choices complemented the characters’ various personalities in each scene, it also, unfortunately, washed out the painted images that were projected on the backdrop.
The corps made a dramatic entrance as the legs to Johnson’s caterpillar in the first half. Dressed in long-sleeved moss green leotards, tights and pointe shoes, Natalie Anton, Sarah Grace Austin, Kirsten Conrad, Heather Gorres, Natalie Kischuk, Libby Kroeger, Megan Van Horn and Emma Wheatcroft-Pardue silently crept up behind Johnson before simultaneously stepping into a deep second position. Connected arms to waists, the dancers moved as one as Johnson led them across the stage. The group soon broke away to execute a series of quick linear formation changes that showed off their effortless bourrees and sharp musical awareness. Timing was off occasionally, especially in the vertical ponche arabesque and with the starting foot as the group exited the stage.
The corps was more together Act 2, nailing the musical nuances in the Flower dance and punctuating all gestural phrases as the jury in the trial scene. The trial was by far the most mesmerizing part of the show. The way the scene was laid out with each character returning to share their encounters with Alice before the Queen of Hearts (Yulia Ilina) wouldn’t have had the impact that it did without Cooper’s meaningful choreography and the dancers’ strong storytelling abilities. Ilina herself conveyed so many emotions with just the tilt of her head and the flick of her hand. Her exquisite lines, regal posture and exacting foot work were all on display throughout the entire second half. She also demonstrated great comedic timing with her evil glares and ode to Anna Pavlova’s Dying Swan.
The wonderfully chaotic music near the end of the scene was reflected onstage by the performers’ wild pantomiming and group antics. The score for the show was written by Mikayla C. Dobson and featured Sarah Tran (flute), Rogene Russell (oboe), Kelly Tanase (clarinet), Pablo Rincon (horn), Leslie Massenburg (bassoon), Sercan Danis (violin), William Gowen (bass),Greg White (percussion) and Misha Berestnev (piano).
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com