This Mother’s Day weekend, Ballet Fantastique (BFan) choreographer-producers Donna Marisa and Hannah Bontrager present their bold, splashy, unique 70-minute steampunk, electro-swing version of Alice in Wonderland back to the Hult Center. Alice in Wonderland: Remix is rooted in the vivid visions of the Lewis Carroll classic, combining BFan’s signature dance theater storytelling and starring the company’s international artists in a remix on a storybook tale—with a unique electro-swing soundtrack and a steampunk twist.

For decades, dance companies have mounted ballet versions of Lewis Carroll’s 1856 novel Alice in Wonderland, telling the story via classical English-style ballet choreography, and usually set to traditional music by English composers. But for this project, BFan commissioned band High Step Society for an exhilarating, daredevil hot jazz score.

“This is an entirely NEW Alice,” says BFan Artistic Director and Choreographer-Producer Donna Marisa“We’ve created music, costumes, sets, and choreography to blur the old with new, tradition with the avant-garde. Our goal is to fuse disparate influences to create a feeling of fantastical disorientation for the audience; the result is a whimsical, playful world where anything is possible.”

“Ballet Fantastique has always wanted to create our own ‘remixed’ Alice in Wonderland, in keeping with our BFan signature style. But…we knew that we needed to wait for the perfect concept, the perfect ‘Ballet Fantastique twist,’” says Co-Choreographer-Producer Hannah. “When we heard the music of High Step Society, we knew we had it.”

Electro swing is a new musical genre (origins ~2010) combining the influence of vintage swing and jazz with house, hip hop and EDM to create a new sound with inventiveness, energy, and range. The result: A modern, dance-floor focused sound that is highly accessible to the modern ear, yet with the feeling of live brass and the energy of early swing recordings. High Step has pushed the frontier.

“The band is excited to have our work reimagined in such a different medium”, says Ethan Rainwater, of High Step Society. “I don’t know if the electronic music world, or the ballet world (or Wonderland for that matter) will have ever seen anything like this.” High Step Society was born in Eugene and has recently relocated to New Orleans.

Alice in Wonderland draws upon proven Ballet Fantastique signatures to attract new, nontraditional audiences: All-new dance theater, a dash of drama and a lot of humor, and twists at once playful and provocative, accessible and artistic. And, this project is quintessentially “Ballet Fantastique”—featuring a collaboration with a formidable team of female artists: BFan founding resident Choreographer-Producers Donna and Hannah (a mother-daughter team) partner with international designer Allison Ditson, headpiece designer Mitra Gruwell, sets creators Kelle DeForrest and Debra Peña, and Ballet Fantastique’s librettist-historian team (another mother-daughter team), Genevieve and Deborah Speer.

Meet the Characters

Though Alice’s experiences lend themselves to meaningful observations, they resist a singular interpretation. Donna and Hannah’s choreography conveys a sense of unlimited possibility and parallels Carroll’s play with linguistic conventions. From the rabbithole to the Queen’s court, Alice’s surroundings and dances are beyond convention. In creating Alice in Wonderland, Donna and Hannah abstract diverse movemental styles—drawing even upon social dances and circus tumbling—as a springboard for the story’s themes and narrative arc, including a madcap Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

The project opens on a picnic with Alice (Hannah Bontrager), and her sister (Lucy Pearce) set to High Step Society’s original song “Alice in Gangsterland” (written specifically for the 2018 world premiere collaboration). Alice then meets the White Rabbit (BFan resident international circus artist, Raymond Silos); his Cyr Wheel is the “rabbit hole.” Alice walks into Wonderland, where she meets the Caterpillar (Brooke Geffrey-Bowler), The DoDo Bird (Ashley Bontrager), The Duchess (Chelsea Lovejoy) and the Cook (Ana Brooks). The Cheshire Cat (Jenavieve Hernandez) teases Alice, then disappears, leaving only her grin—in video animation in collaboration with renowned Eugene-based digital animator Kevin Kerber. The iconic Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is hosted by the Mad Hatter (Preston Andrew Patterson—in tap shoes!), the March Hare (Gustavo Ramirez), and the Dormouse (Ashley Bontrager).

Carroll’s novel takes place in Alice’s dream, so that the characters and phenomena of the real world mix with the elements of Alice’s unconscious state, amidst an abundance of nonsensical happenstance. The narrative follows the dreamer as she attempts to interpret her experiences. And so, Act II opens with a scene Donna calls “Kaleidoscope,” wherein Alice meets this year’s newest character, the

White Queen (Isabelle Bloodgood) as BFan’s company dancers whirl and spin, mesmerizing Alice to High Step Society’s take on the popular jazz hit, “Caravan.” The Flamingos, Hedgehogs, and Guards (Academy of Ballet Fantastique youth students), make their appearance, along with the White Queen, the DoDo Bird (Ashley Bontrager), and the Knave of Hearts (Gustavo Ramirez). And, don’t forget the evil Queen of Hearts (Nicole Brown).

A Steampunk Spin

Throughout Alice in Wonderland: RemixBFan explores the ways in which the women in Carroll’s novel coincide with the women fighting in the suffrage movement of 1865 and provide a fresh perspective on power. As distinctively “Un-Victorian” traits, Alice’s assertiveness, activity, and curiosity make her not only an important example of a “subversive” woman, but also represent a reality where women author their own tales, expect the extraordinary, and speak their minds.

Here, the steampunk aesthetic design vision for Ballet Fantastique’s Alice in Wonderland is especially significant. A term first used in the late 1980’s, “steampunk” refers to an artistic aesthetic drawing on the spirit of optimism and romanticism prevalent in the Victorian era and the “Steam” age. “Punk” paints the picture of rebelling youth, referring to the social and scientific innovation of the day. A steampunk aesthetic turns the Victorian Era inside out—corsets are worn on the outside in women’s fashion, the inner-workings of gadgets are made visible from the outer layer, the unique dreams and ideas of individuals are outwardly expressed for all to re-imagine. Steampunk fashion has no set guidelines, but synthesizes modern styles with Victorian influences. The rebellious aesthetic and retro-futuristic fusion of steampunk is the perfect complement to the design vision for Alice in Wonderland.

This article was provided courtesy of Ballet Fantastique.

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