Published almost 160 years ago, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has captured a special place in nearly everyone’s heart.
Its tale, which is brimming with delightful characters and entertaining imagery, plays with our sense of logic. The book, which is loved the world over by children and adults alike, served as the perfect fodder to ignite the inventiveness of master dance-illusionist Moses Pendleton, founder and artistic director of Momix. Taking only light, shadow, fabric, props and the human body, Pendleton has been perfecting a type of dance theater that is both beautiful and creative for almost 50 years, and his newest evening-length show, Alice, is no exception.
Momix, which has been presented as part of the Duncan Theatre’s Modern Dance Series numerous times over the years, proved Feb. 3 that going down the rabbit hole with this astonishing group of nine performers is a real trip.
The evening had a gentle start. It opened with Alice (Jade Primicias) reading her book (aptly titled Alice) while balancing on one end of a horizontal ladder that was being manipulated by Sean Langford — was he meant to be the author? It’s a summer day. A large image of green fields and a river was projected across the back of the stage — perhaps it’s a nod to the inception of this famous tale. It seems that Lewis Carroll (pen name of the English mathematician and writer Charles Dodgson) was on a river boat ride and entertaining the daughter of a friend named Alice when he came up with the story line.
But in Pendleton’s version, it’s when Alice turned the book upside down that a stranger series of events began to happen — 22 scenes in total if you counted them in the program.
This presentation was not a literal depiction of the best-known book in Victorian literature. It’s hard to know what came first — did Pendleton already have these clever illusion ideas that just needed a home or did the story of Alice’s distorted “dream” fuel Pendleton’s imagination and inspire him to create those clever illusions? Either way, Pendleton’s stream of consciousness (or stream of inventiveness) brought forth a profusion of illusions that collectively seemed to have just an allusion to Carroll’s popular book.
A big part of the appeal of this production was the vibrant and effective visuals and props. As a dance performance, there wasn’t a great deal of dancerly dancing; however, the skillful — almost magical — manipulation of props by the performers was truly captivating. The plethora of projected images that were constantly changing before our eyes greatly enhanced the set up in each new scene. All the visuals were created by Woodrow F. Dick III. At times he projected videos of the performers dancing that were synchronized to the same movement that you were seeing performed onstage. Together with the lighting design by Michael Korsch and lively audio collage by Pendleton (edited by Andrew Hanson), our experience rose to a new high.
The first “how do they do it” moment was in “Alice Down the Rabbit Hole,” where four blond Alices dove head-first into a series of rabbit holes (white tubes set on their ends) only to immediately pop like a jack-in-the-box ending standing on the rim of the prop.
In “A Trip of Rabbits,” eight dancers dressed in minimal, flesh-colored costumes scurried sideways in a clump wearing spooky rabbit masks. Always facing the audience, they would stop, twitch and oddly peer at us — such a strange trip of rabbits. (A group of rabbits can be called a trip, or a bevy or a fluffle or even a herd, among many other terms.)
Masks were also used to advantage in “The Tweedles.” Here a male and female dancer, again dressed in minimal flesh-colored costumes, held the a large placard of a photo of the same baby’s face staring expressionless at us as they undulated their torsos in an incredibly sinewy manner. Joined by another couple with a different baby’s face that had an uncomfortable grimace, they formed a bizarre little train of infants with adult bodies.
“Advice from a Blue Caterpillar” was fun and easy watching as six dancers thoroughly enjoyed themselves bouncing on large blue exercise balls that when lined up in a row — with their set of 12 legs sporting bright red sneakers — looked very much like a giant caterpillar. The lively antics of the dancers were amplified by the videos of themselves projected in same time on the back scrim.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance? We all still remember the words to Lewis Carroll’s wonderful song verse which were sung in the “Lobster Quadrille,” where four women dancers, each wearing a red and a black hoop skirt by company costume designer Phoebe Katzin, glided across the stage as if on ice. The dancers manipulated the skirts for a wide variety of effects while executing linear and square quadrille formations.
In “The Queen of Diamonds,” Seah Hagan was suspended from the rafters by the super-long, ruffled sleeves of her red dress. Looking like a consummate aerial artist, she swung from side to side showing off her beautiful dancer lines.
Aurelie Garcia and Heather Conn made a strong impact as they faced off in “The Queen of Clubs Versus The Queen of Spades,” sparring like dueling characters in Mad Max. Strong and sensual, dressed in sheer black unitards with clubs and spades in just the right places, each of the women was maneuvered by two men who powered one of her legs by lying on a low, wheeled platform and paddling the floor with his hands. Imagine the precision needed to propel the two women so quickly through space and stop on a dime to square off face to face.
Act One ended with “Cracked Mirrors,” where four dancers manipulated large reflecting rectangles that created kaleidoscope illusions made up of whole bodies and body parts. After the endless variety of strong visual display shown in Act One, Act Two: Through the Looking Glass appeared less sculpted as it extensively focused on exploring the use of dancers inside of fabric shapes that stretched à la Alwin Nikolais.
Though the production lost some of its exciting pacing in the second half, the outstanding exception was “Into the Woods,” the double duets danced by Nathaniel Davis with Seah Hagan and Sean Langford with Heather Conn. This marvelous feat of physical strength in partnering was done in perfect slow unison movement. For seven minutes straight, the women never left their perch on the men as they climbed and hung from them. It was like watching a strange and mysterious plant grow in time-lapse photography.
I also enjoyed the slow-motion playfulness in “Bed of Roses” as Hagan, Conn, and Primicias, with their long blond Alice tresses, gently bounced huge red roses through the air of a stark and black stage. The effect was soothing but also surprising as the roses would appear and disappear into the blackness until two of the Alices lay down to sleep, pulling a rose up to cover their bodies as if it were a blanket.
Pendleton’s choices of music were diverse and ran the full spectrum but most fittingly, the show ended with “Go Ask Alice,” set to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” with words and music by Grace Slick. As the psychedelic image of Alice in her white dress grew to be 10 feet tall, our trip ended with much appreciation to our shaman Moses Pendleton and his crew of illusionists for a wonderful trip.