The Lexington Ballet and University of Kentucky’s Department of Theatre and Dance both had an important literary anniversary in mind when selecting shows for their 2015-16 seasons: the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland.
Local audiences will have the opportunity to see two very different versions of the tale this weekend, with the Lexington Ballet bringing the story to life at the Lexington Opera House in a new large-scale ballet set to lesser known works of Tchaikovsky, and UK debuting an intimate, immersive new adaptation at the Guignol Theatre.
The fantastical adventure was inspired by a real-life Alice, the daughter of the vice chancellor of Oxford University and dean of Christ Church College, where author Lewis Carroll was a mathematics lecturer, among other posts, until his death. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in late November 1865 and has never been out of print since.
It also has never stopped inspiring other artists; countless versions of the story have appeared on stage and in television and film, from a 1903 silent film to Disney’s iconic 1951 animated film to Tim Burton’s 2010 movie starring Johnny Depp, of course. Even Taylor Swift has an Alice-themed song on her album 1989, Wonderland, and who can forget the video for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1985 hit Don’t Come Around Here No More, with Petty as the Mad Hatter?
Now we can add Lexington Ballet artistic director Luis Dominguez and UK theater department chair Nancy Jones to the list of artists who have gone down the rabbit hole with Alice in fresh adaptations of the classic tale.
Both Dominguez and Jones went to the source material for inspiration, although their processes and results were wildly different.
“I think one of the most interesting things about Lewis Carroll was how very quirky he was,” Jones says. “He had a fascination with games and riddles and puzzles, a fascination with his child friends.”
In addition to Carroll’s quirkiness, Jones found inspiration in the avant garde circus arts she often sees when she teaches in Paris each year.
“There’s a lot of movement in it, and the idea is that in a circus, each act has its own theme,” says Jones, who also directs the show.
Carroll himself appears in the play, framing the story in biography before the actors take the audience on an interactive adventure.
“It’s a new way of approaching the work,” Jones says.
Jones tapped UK Theatre alumni Tom Burch, a scenic designer who has worked with Actors Theatre of Louisville and, most recently, the Hypocrites Theater in Chicago, which specializes in immersive, interactive experiences, to create an immersive scenic design that puts an intimate audience of 100 people or fewer into the center of the adventure in a sort of circus tent on the Guignol Theatre stage.
Dominguez, by contrast, has created an epic ballet featuring more than 100 dancers and choreographing more than 30 numbers to lesser-known works by Tchaikovsky.
Dominguez says Carroll’s illustrations of the original book helped guide him during the creative processes of choreographing and directing.
“They give you a starting point in terms of form and where the tableaus are going,” Dominguez says. “You can see how the tableaus are going to look, and then from there you go some other places.”
Dominguez says the show is also one of the ballet’s most technically ambitious productions, making use of advanced lighting design techniques such as a fiber-optic curtain, plus shadow-theater special effects and a half-dozen large backdrops.
He also uses a framing device. Inspired by Carroll’s friendship with the real-life Alice, Alice Liddell, Dominguez imagined bookend scenes in which an elderly Alice Liddell and her sister reminisce about their childhood adventures.
Dominguez says the show’s scale allows him to showcase the strengths of the ballet’s company dancers and students.
“I know them, so I can choreograph to their strengths without compromising anything for the audience,” Dominguez says.
Jones also drew on student actors’ individual talents when casting.
“There’s a lot of variety in it in terms of what the actors brought to it,” Jones says. “We capitalized on their skills, and that was part of the casting.”
Both shows are suitable for children to attend, although Jones says the UK production is probably best enjoyed by children eight or older.
Dominguez says, “It’s a beautiful riddle and poem and song.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
‘Alice in Wonderland’
What: University of Kentucky Theatre adaptation by Nancy Jones
When: 7:30 p.m. April 14-16, 21-23; 2 p.m. April 17, 23 and 24.
Where: Guignol Theatre, UK Fine Arts Building, Rose Street at Patterson Drive
Tickets: $15, $10 students
What: Lexington Ballet’s production, directed by Luis Dominguez
When: 7:30 p.m. April 15, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 16
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.