Ballet Palm Beach: Let me be among the first to tell you that this is the new name of the 12-year-old Florida Classical Ballet Theatre.
Artistic Director Colleen Smith announced this from the stage of the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach State College before the premiere of the company’s new ballet, Wonderland, on Saturday.
It is a clever adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s story Alice in Wonderland, with choreography by Smith set to music by three well-known British composers: Gustav Holst, Benjamin Britten and William Walton. From this musical bounty Smith has matched her choreography to some masterly music, most of which I recognized (perhaps if the music selections were listed in the program, by each of the 14 scenes, it would be helpful to audiences).
I trust there’s such a thing as copyright in ballet, because I’m sure this one will be programmed by other companies before not too long. The audience around me was made up of young families, and judging by the reception, there is much to recommend this work.
Smith has captured the essence of Carroll’s “crazy, zany mixed-up madness” in 85 minutes of dance: 45 minutes for Act l and 40 in Act ll. The Alice characters are faithfully reproduced from illustrator John Tenniel’s illustrations for the first edition of Alice in 1865. The scenery, however, looks like a woodland glade, so typical of a lot of ballets. Perhaps a distant view of Christ Church College, Oxford, would lend the scene relevance since Carroll was a student there, as Charles Dodgson.
The ballet begins with three couples playing croquet. Alice, in her iconic blue gown, sits reading what is presumably her story, interacting with the couples. Gracefully danced by Rebekah Levin, she held our interest with her flowing ethereal movements throughout the ballet. Millie Isiminger’s White Rabbit was charming, but too many bunny hops, which after a while smacked of Easter school plays and became boring to watch. Give her some real dancing to do as she moves about each scene, leading Alice astray. Frog and his hornpipe dancers were excellent, but their number was too short. Repeat it a couple of times; it’s so engaging.
A high point was Flower Garden. Young women dressed in big marigold hats of assorted colors and green skirts were sitting in four rows of four, at first, like an orderly English garden, moving only their upper torsos. Eventually, they dance. It was delightful to watch as their hats were caught in simulated zephyr winds. Some very fine line footwork showed enormous discipline, and good cooperative teamwork from the corps de ballet.
The caterpillar, danced by Eric Emerson, was so like Tenniel’s illustration with hookah pipe and oversized mushroom that it perfectly re-created a scene etched in my own childhood memory. Emerson’s incredible body movements won immediate applause. Enter the Duchess, The Cook and the Cheshire Cat, smartly danced by Emily Nichols, Jessica Haley and Livvy Miles, respectively. The cat’s head leaves its body on occasion, engendering cries of disbelief from youngsters near me.
The Three Flamingoes — Elizabeth Faber, Nineh Irving and Shannon Murray — created quite a stir and were absolutely delightful. And they knew it. The three couples get to dance again in The Dargazon, from Holst’s St. Paul Suite, named for a London girls’ boarding school that asked him to write this for their school orchestra. The matching of English music to choreography here is quite appropriate, with so many young girls in the cast.
The second act opens to an adaptation of Greensleeves, again nicely danced by the three couples. Followed by Rogelio Corrales’ commanding Mad Hatter who dances with Alice and the March Hare danced by Lily Ojea. The Queen of Hearts had warm applause for the ravishing red gown; Joseph Bucheck lll could have hammed it up, but moved around sedately, like queens do, getting gasps, not laughs.
The use of three tall ladders on wheels in one scene was most effective, and the full deck of playing cards were wonderful to watch with their military style movements and perfect drill formations. I wanted more of them: another scene that should be extended. I sensed perfect self assurance and confidence in these 15 young dancers. They were superb.
Marshall Levin’s Mock Turtle was excellent. His dance with the Flamingoes to Walton’s Facade Suite had lovely waltz rhythms that swayed and lilted along. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra ends the ballet with everyone assembled as the famous fugue begins. It’s a very eye-catching scene and bears repeating, maybe for a curtain bow. In the last scenes, Alice sees all the characters in freeze-frame groups, which was most effective; it’s a sort of look into her mind as she recaptures the story. The three couples return to play croquet. Alice greets them and is finally left alone in a spotlight, center stage. A standing ovation greeted the dancers.
My only quibble: I would have made more of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. It’s glossed over too hurriedly in its present form.
With creativity of this caliber, Palm Beach County can be proud the company has decided to adopt a name change in its favor. The arts are exploding here. Kudos to everyone who made this ballet a memorable occasion.