REVIEW: Ballet Quad Cities Performs Triumphal, Colorful “Alice” to Close Crazy Season
REVIEW: “Alice in Wonderland” was long a seriously screwy story before Tim Burton and Johnny Depp got involved.
Based on the 1865 Lewis Carroll fever dream (that’s literally a dream), the loopy classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is about a young
girl who falls through a rabbit hole into a wild, nonsensical fantasy world populated by strange anthropomorphic creatures.
For the second time in four years, Ballet Quad Cities artistic director Courtney Lyon has taken on the whimsical challenge of choreographing the beloved story, with ravishing music by the great 19th-century master Peter Tchaikovsky.
Performed with characteristic polish, poise, and tremendous energy by the professional company, this latest “Alice” faced another hurdle in being staged at the elegant, spacious ballroom at The Outing Club in Davenport – BQC’s new home during this past (crazy and unprecedented) season.
I was lucky enough to be asked to see a dress rehearsal Thursday that was filmed by Mediacom for future
broadcast – finally attending my first live, in-person cultural event in over 15 months.
After that Covid-fueled eternity, like being stuck in a rabbit hole or lost and starving in the desert, I lapped up the grace, beauty, and eye-popping, colorful characters with thirsty gusto (I wore a mask in the nearly empty room, and true to form, the dancers were unmasked, though they typically wear face coverings during rehearsal).
I couldn’t summarize the truly mad “Wonderland” tale even if I knew the story beforehand. The program offers titles for each scene, closely following the book, as well as character names and performers, but no other narrative description.
Like some other legendary cultural touchstones (“The Nutcracker,” “The Wizard of Oz”), the other-worldly, demented (“mad as a hatter,” anyone?) goings-on are safely ensconced within a young female protagonist’s dream.
That’s not exactly clear at the gentle conclusion of BQC’s outstanding, super fun version, which doesn’t end by Alice awakened with her sister, but clutching the book with which she began the kaleidoscopic ballet.
Played with exquisite stillness and languorous finesse by 25-year-old Meghan Phillips, this Alice seems clearly the most sane one in this balletic insane asylum.
The small company provides a wide variety of roles for each of the immensely talented, limber dancers to embody. For example, Madeleine Rhode is the playful White Rabbit, the frantic cook, and a gryphon in the sea shore scene.
Mahalia Zellmer distinguishes herself not only as the imperial, fearsome Queen of Hearts, but is the frog in the caucus race scene, and the hare in the amazingly entertaining mad tea party. Victoria King, a BQC student, is a particular standout as the Duchess, as well in the rabbit hole and pool of tears scenes.
Claire Cordano shows impressive versatility throughout, especially as the sleepy, cute dormouse in the tea party, then as the flamboyant White Rose who’s transformed in the mad Queen’s Croquet Ground (a flamingo as a mallet?).
Nick Bartolotti, Sage Feldges and Malachi Squires are consistent scene stealers. I particularly love Bartolotti as the stylish, exuberant waiter in the tea party – matched in slick, Fosse-like pizzazz by Feldges as a sexy Mad Hatter. Squires leads a terrifically cool caterpillar, and is adorable as a down-on-his luck mockturtle.
There even is a dance with death, as Zellmer’s queen cuts a red rug with Kyle Shradel as the executioner (because every kids’ story has to deal with death, right?).
Though you never lose the environment that the ballet is being done in a ballroom (with black curtain backdrops, and some silhouetting against walls), you will lose yourself in the copious feast for the senses this “Alice” offers. Appropriate, since this weekend’s hour-long entertainment is provided along with the tasty food and drink at the Outing Club (2109 Brady St.).
BQC executive director Joedy Cook created and coordinated the stupendous costuming for the production, which alone is worth the price of admission. I can’t do justice to the stunningly bright colors, and creative characters all on display (check out a photo album I attached at the end of this story). And the dazzling athleticism and mind-bending body control on display is – fittingly – also a wonderland.
Balancing ballet in new space
Fortunately, I was also able to interview some of the principals at the Outing Club Wednesday afternoon, and they shared their infectious
passion for the art form, and treasured the ability to continue performing (since last summer) during a global pandemic.
“Because it’s a lot more intimate space, it’s easier for us to see our audience, as opposed to being on a larger stage and being blinded by the lights,” said Bartolotti, a 28-year-old native of Hudson Valley, N.Y., in his second season with BQC. In a theater, “Sometimes it feels like we’re staring into nothingness, knowing there’s a crowd out there, but it’s easier to see in the ballroom setting.”
“If it’s a good crowd and they’re receptive to what we’re doing, it’s really easy to just feed off their energy,” he said.
“I love being on stage, the feeling, the adrenaline rush afterwards,” said Cordano, a 24-year-old native of Ridgefield, Conn. “That’s why I keep doing it. And especially here, it’s been special being on stage. You get to almost interact with the audience members. On a big stage, which I absolutely love, you don’t see anyone. It’s just you. Here, you get to see everybody’s faces, see them smiling or laughing at something you do, and you kind of feed off that energy.”
Without major sets, lighting and live orchestra in a full production, it’s been a challenge as well, she noted. “They’re two different types of performing and they’re both great.”
In the second act, Cordano is a painted flower, who starts out white and they want her to be red for the Queen of Hearts, so she has a very fast costume change on stage to make that happen.
“I get to run around stage, kind of like a game of tag,” she said. “There’s a cool costume change on stage, that’s secretive and I change my white dress to a red dress. It’s a magic trick.”
When she was in high school, she was in a small “Alice” production.
At the Outing Club, Cordano likes hearing children and families enjoying the productions, which gives her an extra boost to keep going.
“I love that, and hopefully we can inspire some kids to dance themselves,” she said. “That’s my favorite part of it all.”
Cordano recalled seeing the New York City Ballet “Swan Lake” with her dad when she was 5, and decided, “That’s what I want to do.”
In “Alice,” the sleepy mouse compared to the upbeat painted flower are completely different characters, she said. “I love that challenge, to switch between the two.”
This is the first time Phillips has danced in “Alice,” which was one of her favorite Disney movies.
“I actually have a cat now, and one of my favorite parts were the animals that she interacted with in the story,” she said. “Alice is such an amazing character, because she’s a little kid. She gets to be bratty
sometimes. She loses her temper; she gets confused; she has a scene where she cries a pool of tears. The range of emotion is enormous in her character, and toward the end she finally comes into her own and stands up to the Queen of Hearts.”
“Everyone kind of goes through that, learning their place,” Phillips said.
She also loves seeing kids in the audience and inspiring the next generation.
“I love the ‘oohs’ or ‘wows’ that they give, sometimes the adults are too shy to say,” Phillips said. Her favorite part of “Alice” is the pool of tears (where other dancers symbolize tears), since you don’t get to cry often as a character on stage.
“It really shows she’s getting lost in an ocean of emotion, of her own tears,” she said.
“I love being up close, because I love to see the audience reactions,” Phillips said. “There’s a special energy when you’re up close.”
She also started dancing at 3, and is 25 now. She attended a “Nutcracker” in Virginia when she was 3, met the Clara, and pretty much began dancing the next day.
Phillips works on cross-training to keep in shape, when she’s not dancing, including cardio workouts and yoga. “Every dancer has their own individual process,” she said.
Doing ballet at Outing Club has involved use of a lot more props, which has been fun, she said. “There’s a lot to look forward to there.”
Like Cordano (who started dancing at 3), Phillips studied dance in college at Purchase, N.Y., and after graduating the same school a year earlier, she recommended BQC to Cordano before she moved here, telling her about the community. “I’m so proud to be here, and our audiences are so supportive,” Phillips said. “The company works really well together and do amazing productions.”
“I love the opportunity to go and work with kids in the schools,” she said, noting more of that outreach had to be online this past year due to Covid. “Those are some of my favorite activities.”
“That’s one of the things I love about the company; all of us are one big family,” she said. “It’s been awesome.”
“It’s been great, being a smaller company, we get to perform constantly,” Cordano said. “We’re always dancing; we’re so many things in each of the shows. I really love that, you’re always dancing. It’s an awesome challenge.”
“It’s nice being in a company of this size, a smaller company where it gets more personal – the dancers we dance with, the interactions with the staff,” Bartolotti said. “We get a little more one-on-one attention.”
“We can bring more of ourselves to the stage, rather than getting lost in the crowd,” he said. Previously, Bartolotti performed with a New York City modern dance company.
He studied ballet at Adelphi University on Long Island, N.Y. His mom opened a dance studio the year before he was born.
“I just like being able to take the stage and feel I become very vulnerable on stage,” Bartolotti said. “At the same time, I feel very safe. It’s a weird juxtaposition of the two and I feel I can give myself fully, as opposed to having to hold back.”
“Alice in Wonderland” is a very quirky ballet, with a lot of fun characters and varying dance styles, he said. There’s a blend of contemporary, with pantomime, and hard-to-categorize movement.
Being a familiar story, it’s kind of like “a lot of work has been done for you,” Bartolotti said, noting he’s a waiter in the Tea Party, where there’s a lot going on. “Because it doesn’t make any sense, I can kind of do whatever I want.”
He’s also a red card in the Queen of Hearts army, and his movements have to be rigid and stiff, like the card would be.
Lyon has 20+ years with company
The supremely talented Courtney Lyon has worked for the Q-C company since 2000, starting as a professional dancer, and she’s been artistic director since 2009. Her undergraduate degree is in dance from University of Iowa, where she studied choreography four semesters.
“I was more interested in performing at the time, so I thought, many years from now I will use these tools,” Lyon said. She also started dancing at 3 at a YMCA in St. Louis.
“I loved performing, loved throwing myself into a role,” she said. “When you do that, it is a single focus. You’re really invested in your character. You connect with the actors around you. You know you’re contributing to a scene, but you’re really responsible for your own character. As a choreographer, I get to have my hand in everyone’s character – I love that.”
“It’s being able to use a range,” Lyon said of a creating a ballet. “People like flexing different parts of their artistic muscles, and for me, the stage is like a playground. I get to slide down this slide, jump off this thing, and climb up this, and make a mess over here.”
Appropriately, her frolic-filled Mad Tea Party in “Alice” features a slanted table that is used as a slide. Lyon said she studies great choreographers nonstop, and is an avid reader.
“I was ready to make worlds, and invest in worlds,” she said. “You give me a great piece of music, or any music, some dancers and a space,
and I’ll make a story for you. It’s super fun for me to really invest in each character.
“I know how each character walks, how they run, every character on stage’s back story,” she said. “I’m trying to get the dancers to invest in my vision as well, so I want them to be able to see the character, bringing them to life.”
Lyon first created an “Alice” for BQC in 2018, after never participating in a previous production of the story.
“In a way, this audience gets to benefit from me having done it before, because I get to make my piece of art; I step back from it when it’s all done and I see where I can tidy it up,” she said, noting she trimmed about 20 minutes for the new version.
“The only thing I really feel is missing is the Cheshire cat,” Lyon said, which had been a dancer in the previous version, and is just referenced
now in the story (not a dancer).
In her original version, the cat was a man dressed in black, in a pas de deux with Alice, and when she was lifted, it appeared like she was floating, and the cat disappeared into just a smile, like in the story, “That was a trick I really couldn’t pull off in this space, so I let it go,” Lyon said. “You don’t miss it – there are so many colorful characters in ‘Alice,’ it’s so fun.”
Going down the rabbit hole, there’s no hole in the ballet for her to fall into (but other dancers represent it), while in the book, she falls over many pages, she said. “I kind of flipped it on its side, so dancers are like the wind rushing by her – running towards the audience,” she said.
Being at the Outing Club has forced Lyon to be more creative in choreography, partly since there are no theater wings to exit into. “It’s made me sharpen my skills as a choreographer and a storyteller, and I appreciate that,” she said. “I can’t wait to get back to a more traditional stage.”
Lyon doesn’t really long to get back on stage herself, since she loves what she does now. “Surprisingly, I am more satisfied,” she said. “We have a very supportive environment.”
Two more performances in May
For local ballet fans, the full season isn’t quite done, as two performances have been added – Thursday, May 6 at 6:30 p.m. in the Figge Art Museum Grand Lobby, in honor of the American art exhibit, plus a May 8 fuller production at Davenport’s Adler Theatre at 2 p.m. That Saturday show kicks off a new Adler Theatre Foundation series.
For the Adler, BQC will dance all pieces they’ve done before, including the popular “Bolero,” among highlights of the past season.
Unlike traditional choreography created for a stage, this version of “Bolero” was created to be viewed in the round as if viewing a sculpture in a museum. Five dancers, four chairs and Ravel’s hypnotizing score will make this a living art experience you will never forget.
Also performed will be the fun baseball-themed “Players,” the jazzy and sophisticated “Sugar Rum Fairy” the passionate pas de deux from the ballet “Carmen,” and the sunny and chill “Dream a Little Dream.”
For the Figge (which already has been filled with the 40 patrons allowed to attend for free), Lyon has
choreographed three pieces, including the classic “Billy the Kid” with music by Aaron Copland. Other pieces include music by George Gershwin (choreographed by Emily Kate Long), and another created by Phillips – all based on paintings in the Figge exhibit “For America,” on display through May 16.
“This is tricky, because it’s a lot of performing, a lot of different pieces,” Lyon said this week. “It’s juggling time management, different pieces. And it’s hard for the dancers and all of us to switch gears, to be different characters.”
The last BQC performance at the Adler was the December 2019 “Nutcracker.” The upcoming performance will be very satisfying, “the light at the end of the tunnel,” Lyon said, their last show of the season.
“We’re looking forward to being back at the Adler,” Cook, the executive director, said. She’s already booked the Paramount in Cedar Rapids this December for the company to bring its timeless, gorgeous “Nutcracker” back, but she’s not sure about the Adler next holiday season.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” she said Thursday. “I hope that people will want to do the traditional ‘Nutcracker’ again with their family and friends.”
If there’s any way to make that happen (or any justice in the world), that would literally be another dream. Kudos – and my bursting heart – go out to everyone involved in Ballet Quad Cities for not giving up and continuing to find ways to offer in-person, ineffable, invaluable entertainment.
The May 8 matinee performance costs $25 per person, with tickets available at AdlerTheatre.com. The BQC “Alice in Wonderland” will be performed four times this weekend at Outing Club, with some Saturday night tickets available – but with drinks and not dinner. The seating capacity is being limited to 70 patrons per performance.