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Curiouser and curiouser: Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Alice” overcomes early flaws to delight


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Grand Rapids Ballet’s Cassidy Isaacson and Levi Teachout in “Alice in Wonderland.” Photos by Eric Bouwens.

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For a long time, it’s been a common speculation that iconic novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was the product of mind-altering drugs. The world premiere of Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB)’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” Friday night based on that tale by Lewis Carroll’s (the pseudonym for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), feeds into that notion. The mind-blowing visual spectacle has the feel of a cross between 1960s psychedelia and Disney’s “Fantasia.” But where award-winning Argentinian visual artist Luis Grané’s colorful and cartoon-like costumes and scenic design was a highlight of the production, slow character development early on in the ballet proved problematic.

Known for his illustration work on such films as “The Matrix” (1999), “Ratatouille” (2007), “Hotel Transylvania” (2012) and “The Boxtrolls” (2014), Grané’s bold visual effects and projections acted as a moving scenic backdrop to the 90-minute multimedia production choreographed by Brian Enos. “Alice” was the first ever full-length story ballet Enos has choreographed. He was up to the challenge for the most part, employing a strategic blend of movement styles that helped illustrate each of the ballet’s characters. The artistic director of St. Louis’ The Big Muddy Dance Company, local audiences may remember Enos from his other ballet created on GRB, 2013’s Scottish-flavored “Nae Regrets.”

Family-friendly (although skewing more toward younger audiences), the ballet was set to a well thought out score of existing music by composers Alfred Schnittke, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and others compiled by Brendan Hollins. Although not set in the usual Victorian era in favor of a more contemporary look, for the most part Enos followed Carroll’s universally known storyline.

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2016 ‘Spring to Dance Festival’ Swan Song for Founder Uthoff


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Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 at Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.


By Steve Sucato

Dance St. Louis’ 9th annual Emerson Spring to Dance Festival, May 27-29 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, will be a bittersweet one for Festival founder Michael Uthoff. After a decade as executive and artistic director of the 50-year-old Missouri presenting organization, Uthoff is stepping down to pursue other opportunities.

The product of a dancer household in Santiago, Chile, Uthoff’s parents, Ernst Uthoff and Lola Botka were dancers and founded the Chilean National Ballet. Uthoff took up dance late by today’s standards beginning after high school. Moving to the U.S., he studied at New York’s Juilliard School, the School of American Ballet and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. His professional career as a dancer included stints with the José Limón Company and as a principal dancer with Joffrey Ballet. In 1973, he founded Hartford Ballet and in 1992 he became artistic director of Ballet Arizona in Phoenix. As a choreographer, he has created ballets for numerous companies including Ballet Nacional Chileno, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Hartford Ballet and Ballet Arizona.

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Michael Uthoff

In taking over the leadership of Dance St. Louis in 2006, among the many initiatives Uthoff started or built upon at Dance St. Louis was the Emerson Spring to Dance Festival.

“I felt there was a great deal of talent especially in the mid-west that wasn’t seen,” says Uthoff.  “I was in awe of the quality and variety of dance that nobody knew about.”

With Spring to Dance, Uthoff says he saw an opportunity to make dance more accessible to audiences by featuring an eclectic mix of those undiscovered artists and troupes.

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Aerial Dance Chicago performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

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Grand Rapids Ballet performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet.

Uthoff says he receives around 100 applications per year from dance artists and companies wanting to be a part of the $200,000 plus Festival. And while the main focus has been on choosing local and regional dance artists and troupes, past Festivals have also included performances by members of more recognizable companies including Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Pilobolus.

While other dance festivals of this type such as New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival rely more heavily on big name dance companies to attract audiences, Uthoff and Dance St. Louis did so by offering audiences a lot of dance of varying styles at an affordable price. In the process they created one of the most important national dance festivals for regional dance artists and troupes there is.

“You look at companies such as Ballet Memphis, Lucky Plush, Eisenhower Dance and others that got themselves moving forward very fast because of the Festival.” says Uthoff.

In addition, the festival has shined a spotlight on Dance St. Louis and dance in St. Louis with regular appearances at Spring to Dance by local dance troupes including Saint Louis Ballet, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Modern American Dance Company (MADCO) and others.

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Helen Simoneau Danse performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in the Lee Theater. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

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The Big Muddy Dance Company performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

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The Dancing Wheels Company performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of The Dancing Wheels Company.

Not only are introduces audiences to new dance companies, Utoff says another by-product is introducing the dance companies to each other.

“These companies were watching each other for the first time,” says Uthoff. “In many cases they didn’t know the other existed. A cross-pollination began to occur where choreographers from one company were being hired by another because of what had been seen at Spring to Dance.”

Having been a dancer, choreographer and artistic director for decades, Uthoff says he loved being on the other side of the fence as a dance presenter with Dance St. Louis.

“I was given the freedom to implement certain artistic endeavors that fostered creativity in other people,” says Uthoff.  “Part of that was allowing lesser known companies to be seen in an environment that hopefully will bring them greater acclaim and success.”

Here’s a look at the Festival’s nightly performances (subject to change) at Touhill Performing Arts Center’s two theaters:

Friday, May 27, 2016

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Push Dance Company performs Friday, May 28, 2016 in the Lee Theater. Photo by Matt Haber.

Lee Theater – 6 -7 PM

PUSH Dance Company (San Francisco, CA)
Barkin/Selissen Project (New York, NY)
Laura Careless/Alchemy for Nomads (Brooklyn, NY)
Afriky Lolo (St. Louis, MO)

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Peridance Contemporary Dance Company performs Friday, May 28, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima.

Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall – 7:30 – 9:30 PM

Owen/Cox Dance Group (Kansas City, MO)
Houston METdance Company (Houston, TX)
Peridance Contemporary Dance Company (New York, NY)
Saint Louis Ballet (St. Louis, MO)
Jennifer Muller/The Works (New York, NY)
Giordano Dance Chicago (Chicago, IL)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

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Project 44 performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in the Lee Theater. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

Lee Theater – 6 -7 PM

Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company (St. Louis, MO)
Project 44 (Astoria, NY)
Helen Simoneau Danse (Winston-Salem, NC)
BODYART (Los Angeles, CA)

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Chicago Tap Theatre performs Saturday, May 28, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall 7:30 – 9:30 PM

MADCO (St. Louis, MO)
Thodos Dance Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Joel Hall Dancers (Chicago, IL)
Chicago Tap Theatre (Chicago, IL)
The Dancing Wheels Company (Cleveland, OH)
Grand Rapids Ballet (Grand Rapids, MI)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

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Cheyenne Phillips performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 in the Lee Theater. Photo by Gerry Love.

Lee Theater – 6 -7 PM

3 Soloists
Tayia Deria
Tyra Kopf
Cheyenne Phillips

Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company [LINDSAY HAWKINS]
The Big Muddy Dance Company [AUDREY SIMES]
MADCO [HANNA BRICSTON]

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Ballet Memphis performs Sunday, May 29, 2016 in Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. Photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis.

Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall 7:30 – 9:30 PM

The Big Muddy Dance Company (St. Louis, MO)
Eisenhower Dance (Southfield, MI)
Joffrey Ballet Duet (Chicago, IL)
Aerial Dance Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (Dayton, OH)
Ballet Memphis (Memphis, TN)

Location

The Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis
1 University Blvd
St. Louis, MO 63121
(866) 516-4949

Single Ticket Prices

Lee Theater – $10 per night
Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall – $15 per night
Tickets to see all of the performances in both theaters – $20 per night (while supplies last)
Tickets are available at the Dance St. Louis box office at 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive (in Grand Center), St. Louis, MO 63103, or by calling 314-534-6622 or by visiting dancestlouis.org

Dance St. Louis

Dance St. Louis is widely recognized as the leading dance presenter in St. Louis, the Midwest and by the professional dance community. Founded in 1966, Dance St. Louis has been bringing the greatest dance of the world to St. Louis audiences for 50 years. Dance St. Louis is dedicated to the enrichment of the cultural landscape and artistic reputation of St. Louis by presenting great dance companies and educational opportunities that make dance accessible to everyone. Dance St. Louis also conducts a broad range of education programs for the St. Louis community. Each year, the Education Outreach Program introduces thousands of schoolchildren to the magic of dance through in-school workshops and mainstage performances. For more information, please visit dancestlouis.org.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

 

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