'Wonderland,' 21st century style

  • Article by: CAROLINE PALMER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2011 - 9:23 AM

BALLET REVIEW: High-tech touches gave classic lots of energy, but sometimes overshadowed Alice.

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Tara Birtwhistle and the Company in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's "Wonderland."

Photo: Bruce Monk, Star Tribune

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Lewis Carroll wrote "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" more than 150 years ago, yet his story of a journey into a topsy-turvy world still captivates. The U.S. premiere of "Wonderland" by Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, presented Saturday night by Northrop Dance at the Orpheum Theater, brought the tale into the 21st century through technology and pop culture references ranging from Vegas to 24-hour news channels. These elements either elevated or stunted imaginative possibility, depending on the scene.

The performance was full of the expected whimsy, but choreographer Shawn Hounsell seemed more engaged by the darker undertones, which was to the work's benefit.

He played up the cranky dispositions of Wonderland's denizens and their bizarre random behavior, as in the raucous domestic battle scene between the combat-boot-wearing Duchess (Eric Nipp) and feral Cook (Yayoi Ezawa).

But Hounsell also tapped into a primal sense of isolation, best embodied by the melancholic duet of Alice (Amanda Green) and Mock Turtle (Dmitri Dovgoselets).

Some characters were more fully realized than others. Yosuke Mino gave an exceptionally alert and hurry-scurry interpretation of the perpetually late White Rabbit, while Amar Dhaliwal's wily Mad Hatter dove into every movement with fanatic dedication. The psychedelic Caterpillar section performed by Carrie Broda, Alexander Gamayunov, Tristan Dobrowney and Alex Lantz was an exquisite fantasy moment.

But Alice seemed to disappear at times. Her growing assertiveness, so central to the story, was trumped by the swirling chaos around her.

This had less to do with the dancer than an artistic vision focused more on style than substance. The use of video imagery, for example, has merits, but here the shape-shifting set sometimes detracted from the action. There is a tricky balance between visual trickery and the immediacy of live performance. That equilibrium was not always achieved in "Wonderland."

There was nothing distracting about Tara Birtwhistle's Queen of Hearts. Dressed in a red high-collared bell-bottomed get-up she channeled Madonna, Cruella de Ville, Elvis, even Sue Sylvester from "Glee" while stalking about the stage. She used a bullhorn to shout chastisements, some of which could have come from a fed-up choreographer, and, of course, "Off with your head!" She even held a boastful "TMZ"-like film interview, completing a study in celebrity-gone-awry that was among the most memorable aspects of the show.

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