Milwaukee Ballet goes down the rabbit hole with ‘Alice (in wonderland)’

Don’t be late for the very important dates of May 19 to 22. That’s when the Milwaukee Ballet will be closing its 46th season with Alice (in wonderland), a stunning production that brings the Lewis Carroll classic to life with vivid, surreal staging. The production will feature 30 dancers from the company, as well as nearly 100 children from the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy.

According to Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink, choreographer Septime Webre’s vision of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland focuses on broad brushstrokes, harnessing the whimsical and familiar elements and personalities of Wonderland. “I liked the artistic side of it. Instead of it being so quirky and dark and mysterious, it’s very open and very bright,” says Pink.

Webre’s interpretation was originally produced by the Washington Ballet Company in 2012, and has appeared previously in Denver, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. It combines the memorable storybook characters of Alice, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, the Cheshire Cat and others with Cirque du Soleil-style feats of strength and daring to tell this light-hearted adventure story.

Alice truly has no physical boundaries. Its choreography asks Milwaukee Ballet dancers to perform complex acrobatics and athleticism, and features staging that makes wild use of dimension and space. It’s a challenge that makes Pink excited, but cautious.

“I warned them at the beginning (of the season) when we did Dracula,” says Pink, “’This is waiting for you at the end of the season, Alice is waiting for you. Do not underestimate what you will need to do to get through this.’ It’s a monster of a show.

“In a piece like Alice, our job is to pass on the technique of survival: to know how and when to push, what are the ways in which you can keep yourself safe,” adds Pink. The endurance required of the company to pull off Alice will be unlike anything else of the season up to this point, although the Ballet’s previous contemporary program, Kaleidoscope Eyes, comes close. Pink believes the stamina his company has built up as a result of that diverse, three-work program will help them shoulder Alice.

Even still, Webre’s choreography will be a herculean challenge, Pink says. “Septime’s given some very complex partnering for the Cheshire Cat, for the Red Queen, and for the Caterpillar. In the midst of all this fast and furious movement you have to try and stay focused on the correct alignment and take all the tension out of it so you can make it effortless.”

In addition to this extraordinary dancing, Alice (in wonderland) features colorful and fanciful scenery, costumes and puppets. To Pink, these theatrical elements serve as the bridge between the classic text and the stage. “The costume designer had all of the materials screen-printed (with) quotations from the text,” says Pink, “which I think is a lovely idea because that’s almost like the pages coming to life.”

Some of the puppets and set pieces are so large, they seem to threaten both dancers and audience members alike. Pink says the jabberwocky puppet in particular is “spectacular,” a 25-foot-long silver, black and red creation with menacing frills, spikes and teeth that requires a team of eight to operate.

Alice’s composer, Matthew Pierce, will lend his musical expertise to the production, joining the chamber orchestra on violin. “The piece is incredibly tuneful,” describes Pink, “it’s got a lot of character and there’s something very filmic about it.”

This production will also mark the final appearance of several dancers who’ve helped Michael Pink make the Milwaukee Ballet so impressive in his time with the company. Dancers Susan Gartell (with the company for 13 years), Valerie Harmon (10 years) and Alexandre Ferreira (five years) will leave Milwaukee for new dance prospects after the final curtain, while leading artist Marc Petrocci will retire from dance after a career including 13 years with the Milwaukee Ballet. “This is such a wonderful way to celebrate their contributions as they turn they attention to their futures,” says Pink, “so we’ll be celebrating them throughout that weekend.”

Alice (in wonderland) runs May 19 to 22 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $35 to $102, and can be purchased at 414-902-2103 or milwaukeeballet.org.