photo courtesy of Momix

Momix’s Alice dazzles, even though dance is elusive

The balcony of the Annenberg’s Zellerbach Theater was filled last Saturday night for the final performance of MOMIX’s production of Alice, conceived by Moses Pendleton and inspired by Lewis Carroll’s fantasy classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Pendleton stated, “Alice is a natural fit for MOMIX…in terms of the fusion of dancing, lighting, music, costumes, and projected imagery,” adding that he never intended to tell the whole Alice story. His depictions through seventeen scenes focused on two of the story’s motifs of episodes from Down the Rabbit Hole and Through the Looking Glass. Many of Alice’s other adventures are left on the cutting room dance floor.

The curtain comes up on A Summer’s Day with Alice suspended in mid-air reading her book. Her dress hides the fact that she is on the end of a creaky ladder that a dancer on the other end is piloting. This tableau is set against a drone aerial of an English garden. Alice is spirited around in an elegant seesawing acrobatic dance.

From there, the narrative becomes a pastiche of Pendleton’s movement magic and the immersive video designs of Woodrow F. Dick. And a reduction of Carroll’s surreal (Victorian) subversive story. Alice’s looking glass adventures are a wild jumping-off point for Pendleton’s Momix phantasmagoria.

There is animation for the kids of creepy creatures, some sex, drugs, and rock&roll for the many baby boomers who were digging Pendleton’s acid-trip visuals. 

None of this mattered as the audience seemed enthralled by the sheer ingenuity of Pendleton’s illusions, immersive stagecraft, and the precision of the cast of captivating dancer-acrobats. 

And for the dance audience, some equally memorable and all too brief dance scenes leave us, like Alice, thirsty for more. When Alice appears center stage en pointe alternating from 3rd position piques to complete turned in feet, to stunning effect. 

There is an atmosphere of fetishism that hovers in a scene with dancers in rabbit masks and nude tights. But this scene has the purest dance elements (and no props) as the dancers move around in a twitchy undulating cluster, some bolting away for solo variations. This scene, in particular, puts dance on the front burner, but those moments in Alice are fleeting.

Some scenes strike as filler as the dancers bounce and roll around on inflated workout balls with live-action projections as a backdrop that multiplies their bodies and morphs them into kaleidoscopes images ala Busby Berkeley. The stained glass ghosts, the amoebic creatures that appeared and vanished, and the levitation effects continue to enchant. Still, like many Cirque de Soleil shows, a particular effect goes long enough to become too static. This aspect of Alice further pushes any of the story’s familiar motifs to the wings.

Then there is a bathing beauty umbrella dance against the ocean backdrop that could have been staged on a 60s variety show. Contrast that with the grotesquery of Alice with hairy spider legs or the inflated Tweedles, from Pendleton’s movement, a petri dish of dancing spores are type cast here as they wrestle each other.

A quartet with infant photo masks covering their faces as they dance to Indian music and slink around in interlocking yogic contortions. The choreography is intriguing, and with those babyface masks, not without some creepiness. 

Aside from Alice, the Queen of Hearts dominates as Pendleton shuffles the dance deck. Most effective, ‘The Mad Queen’ leads into the ‘Cracked Mirrors’ with the dancers holding full-length mirrors, their images, in whole or parts, reflected in mid-air over them. Another extended sequence has dancers spinning in red and black ruffled hoop skirts like Sufis but changing the shapes of the costumes as fast as they turn. One minute they appear in an elegant ballgown, and the next as grotesque fabric sculptures in motion. 

The Rabbit executes the most jacked jetes of feral delight but vanishes too fast, setting up ‘Queen Alice’ for the finale, scored majestically to Jefferson Airplane’s 60s druggie anthem ‘White Rabbit.’ Pendleton devises a simple scene with Alice ending up ten feet tall, but with stunning impact and lyrical movement elegance.

‘Alice’ is a mixed bag but an obvious crowd-pleaser. Woodrow F. Dick’s video design and integration with dance acrobatics is state-of-the-art immersion with the action onstage. Phoebe Kazan’s costume designs, particularly the period ones, are brilliantly suggestive of Victoriana and au courant simultaneously. And for Pendleton, this is a hit, his imagination as bizarre and still morphing after all these years. 

Equally impressive is the precision artistry of Heather Conn, Nathaniel Davis, Sean Hagan, Aurelie Garcia, Sean Lamgfprd, Elise Paiccio, and Jade Princias, who switched out characters, costumes, and executed illusions. The audience was on its feet with rapturous applause during their bows, and it became thunderous when they finished off with a display of liberated leaps and turns en’ l’air, all magically their own. 

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