By Jennifer Brewer
PORTLAND – Maine State Ballet’s “Alice in Wonderland” is a marvel. The weekend’s two matinees amounted to a revival for “Alice,” which the company hadn’t performed for about a decade. Judging by Sunday’s show, it would be nice to see this gem more frequently.
Artistic director Linda MacArthur Miele’s musicality-based choreographic genius is displayed beautifully in “Alice.” Miele began by selecting music that sounds custom-composed, but in fact is a diverse set of pieces from Glazunov’s ballet classic “Raymonda” and “Façade,” composed by Sir William Walton to accompany a poetry series of Edith Sitwell.
The pieces Miele selected from “Façade” range from lighthearted stateliness to circus-like rhythms to Vaudevillian interludes, while those from “Raymonda” provide lyrical beauty.
Unusual for a ballet, “Alice” includes narration, so that at times the dancing included mimed action. The narration was surprisingly non-intrusive, and it clearly provided information that helped the audience’s many children follow the story.
The ballet included the most famous scenes from Lewis Carroll’s story, including “Down the Rabbit Hole,” “A Mad Tea Party,” “The Lobster Quadrille” and “A Game of Croquet.”
Alice’s visit to the “Garden of Live Flowers” provided an opportunity for some pretty classical dancing from the corps and soloists, featuring principal soloist Christina Williams as the graceful Rose. Each piece in the scene was a good length to allow pleasing choreography without spending too long outside the plot.
Elizabeth Dragoni was delectable as Alice: light and strong, with just the right acting touches for Alice’s surprise, confusion and delight. Her interactions with the other characters were spot-on, especially the Caterpillar, performed sinuously and mysteriously by Nathaniel Dombek, in a purple unitard painted with exotic gold filigree.
It was great to see Jonathan Miele, Broadway veteran and co-director of Maine State School for the Performing Arts, as the subtly funny Mad Hatter. Nobody can hold a stage like Miele, and he and Dragoni played well off each other as he repeatedly denied her a seat and a cup of tea.
Dragoni’s duet with Glenn Davis as the Knave of Hearts was very funny, with smooth and precise technique augmented by well-timed comedy. They performed pas de deux standards like supported arabesques and over-the-head lifts, but always with an element of surprise for Alice.
One of the most impressive pieces of choreography came in the ensemble of playing cards. The dancers wore torso-sized cards in all suits and almost all numbers. Performing formations that filled the stage with Rockette-style precision, they maintained an illusion of flatness without stiffness, never bending at the waist.
Frequent humorous touches, stylistic variety extending to a retro soft-shoe tap number by Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee (Gina Pardi and Julia Lopez) and intelligent timing of story-free classical pieces all combined to hold the audience’s attention without a break, for both adults and children, both ballet fans and novices.
Gail Csoboth’s costumes and scenery evoked, without copying, the original “Alice” art of Tenniel, for a visual flavor in keeping with the story’s intrinsic surreal quality, with no hint of the more psychedelic treatments it has sometimes received. The “Lobster Quadrille” costumes were particularly brilliant, with ruffled skirts that could have passed as standard Spanish dance dresses but, at the same time, looked exactly like lobsters’ tails complete with bottom fins.
Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.Tweet