Dance Review: Momix’s “Alice” — Curiouser and Curiouser

By Debra Cash

Too, too soon, the images in Momix’s Alice alternate between unpleasant and stale.

Momix’s Alice presented by Global Arts Live at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, January 13 and 14

A scene from Momix’s production of Alice, inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Photo: courtesy of Momix

“’What is the use of a book,’ thought Alice,’ without pictures or conversations?” Mathematician and logician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s famous opening line for Alice in Wonderland (1865) has launched hundreds of adaptations — in books, film (from Disney’s well-scrubbed animated version  and its Tim Burton remake to the creepily imaginative Jan Švankmajer version), theater (there was an authorized musical production as early as 1886), musicals (David Del Tredici to Tom Waits), and, of course, illustrations for new editions of the book (check out Barry Moser’s spectacular interpretation), fine and public art, plus video and board games. Not to mention a landfill’s worth of Alice in Wonderland-inspired merch for kids and grown-ups.

As dance, the pictures have to take over entirely from the conversations. That should make ample room for loopy visions. It would seem that Moses Pendleton, an original founder of Pilobolus in 1971 while he was a student at Dartmouth, and the creator of the similarly athletic surrealist ensemble Momix in 1980, would bring the right chops to the project. As he explained to a reporter before Momix’s performance in Amherst last fall,

If you’re good at daydreaming, that’s the whole thing. How can you go into the rabbit hole of your own subconscious and dig around in there? It’s infinite in terms of creative possibilities, but you’d have to know how to open that door.

Remember the door that Alice finds behind a curtain? The one she couldn’t fit through even though she had the key in her hand?

Moses Pendleton can’t fit through the door either.

To be fair, Momix’s Alice was never intended to be a retelling of the Alice stories: it is more a fantasia on the themes of the two Alice books in 22 vignettes, some hewing closer to Lewis Carroll’s (and illustrator Sir John Tenniel’s) exemplars and others going their own trippy ways. But Momix’s Alice rides on brand adjacency, with Pendleton using the projected faces of Carroll and his model/child obsession Alice Liddell and references to Wonderland to bring in the crowds.

Alice begins promisingly. A long-haired damsel seems to levitate above a country riverbank, reading an oversized Alice book, as a gent in a vest (Carroll himself? The white rabbit in his human form? Are they the same?) maneuvers what we realize is a ladder she is balanced on. She sways and seesaws as if in a summer wind. Lit shoe soles hurry past in the dark, and a pastiched sound score (by Pendleton) seems to promise a balanced proportion of distortion and dream.

But too, too soon, the images in Alice alternate between unpleasant and stale. An eroticized Bollywood group dance with dancers wearing baby face masks. (Was Lewis Carroll a pedophile? You decide.) A Cheshire Cat with spinning peppermint eyes instead of a grin. A girl on pointe with her hair over her face. Giant blue balls (I think that’s on purpose) dribbled across the stage and duplicated and projected behind the live performers as if the dancers were taking selfies in a Yayoi Kusama infinity mirror room. Dancers whose stretchy costumes become stained-glass church windows under Woodrow F. Dick III’s projections. Alice turns into a spider (shades of Louise Bourgeois!) in a wonderful puppet costume designed by Michael Curry, but beyond portraying a how-did-I-get-here dread, her transformation is left unexamined.

Finally, in a closing vignette, figures rise to uncommon heights, their skirts made into pedestals as in Pilobolus’s milestone 1975 Untitled and the stage floods with psychedelic colors. Soaring above the commotion is the voice of Grace Slick spitting out the song White Rabbit.

Two and a half minutes of Grace Slick provided more authenticity than an entire evening of the stage effects in Moses Pendleton’s Alice reimaginings.

Debra Cash is a founding Contributing Writer to The Arts Fuse and a member of its Board.

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