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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Alice towers over her wonderland in a spectacular ballet at the Marcus Center. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Milwaukee Ballet's "Alice (in wonderland)" is a spectacular, sensory triumph

There are rare moments in the life of an arts organization when something happens that is a stamp of its style and the core belief that makes it who it is.

The Milwaukee Ballet unfurled a moment just like that Thursday night when it dropped a production of Septime Webre's "Alice (in wonderland)" on a full house of delirious spectators who must have felt as if they had just taken their first LSD trip and found out just how much fun it can be.

Let me explain.

In his 14 years as artistic director, Michael Pink has built a company that fits his vision. He is a storyteller, born out of the Northern Ballet Company and other United Kingdom companies where the story is king.

He has hired and nurtured dancers who are actors and who can carry the stories he tells with the kind of emotion that every great stage story demands.

Webre, artistic director at the Washington Ballet and the man who created this rendition of "Alice," stepped out of the world of classical ballet and moved into the George Balanchine world of contemporary ballet with this production.

The Milwaukee company, asked to perform outside its wheelhouse, stepped up to the plate and, in the process, did Pink, Webre and this city proud, enhancing its reputation as one of the finest regional ballet companies in the country.

Think of it in terms of sports, where a coach has built an attacking soccer team, capable of and designed to score goals by the bucketful. Then along comes the time when they suddenly have to use their skills to play a defensive game.

That was the task set before the Milwaukee dancers, and they reveled in the challenge – and more than met it, as this was the most spectacular ballet I've seen this company ever do.

Webre's ballet centers on Alice, danced opening night by the winsome force of nature Annia Hidalgo. She is a glutton for every odd and strange thing or character that lurks down at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

She floats well above the Marcus Center stage, waving, blowing kisses and exchanging high-fives with Tweedledee and Tweedledum who soar past on a yellow bicycle built for two.

This production is a dynamic feast for the eyes, all while set to a magnificent score by Matthew Pierce, who conducted the ballet orchestra with the kind of quirky demand that fit the action on the stage to perfection.

And that action was breathtaking. From the design by James Kronzer, the lighting by Clifton Taylor and the incredible costume design by Liz Vandal, this was a night for sights, sounds and sighs of delight.

Rarely have I ever heard an audience explode so spontaneously and so often during a performance. Much of that was the choreography by Webre, but it was matched by the magic of the company that Pink has built.

The parade of moments kept marching by, moment by moment, solo by solo, chorus line by chorus line. Parker Brasser-Vos danced the White Rabbit with the kind of cuddly joy you'd love in your very own pet bunny.

But the scene of the night belonged to Susan Gartell who danced the Caterpillar. It was a display of studied discipline and body control that you have to see to believe. From her first slither atop the shoulders of her men, the audience gasped in both wonder and unbridled affection.

I've long felt that one of the most difficult things about Milwaukee is the inability of the ballet to have longer runs. Five performances just doesn't seem enough for all of the work put into productions like this one and all the joy that comes out of it.

Having said that, however, it is still much to the credit of Pink and his company of dancers that they took Webre's spectacular ballet to heights unimaginable.

"Alice (in wonderland)" runs through Sunday; information on tickets is available here.


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