In www.onderland, Alice dances her way to virtual self-identity

When Alice follows the White Rabbit down an abyss, it leads her deep into a whimsical world of fantasy. When Yale’s modern dancer falls into that same abyss, it leads to a virtual world — the Internet.

A modern dance adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” www.onderland, choreographed by Allegra Long ’08, Celeste Ballard ’08 and Maggie Burrows ’10, explores Alice’s classic notions of self identity through movement in her new digital Wonderland. Funded by the World Performance Project and a Timothy Dwight Sudler fund, this production is unique for both its autonomy from dance groups on campus and its strong narrative voice.

“There are no dance shows put up at Yale which tell a story,” Burrows explained. “Typical dance shows are showcases in which individual pieces follow after one another with interludes connecting each piece.”

www.onderland marks a departure from the showcase tradition. The dance show, based on both Lewis Carroll’s novel and the later Disney film adaptation, creates true characters and stories expressed through dance — and a complete artistic vision, including sets, costumes and video, to support it. The lingual underpinnings of the novel and film, those of identity and struggle to adapt to a nonsensical world, are instead physically constructed, Ballard explained.

Over the summer, the idea to choreograph a dance show evolved into an independent study project for Ballard and Long, under the supervision of Yale’s dance guru and the artistic director of the World Performance Project, Emily Coates ’06. Performance studies, the choreographers thought, would allow for a correspondence between Wonderland and the Internet rapport. They applied for a World Performance Project fund, which fosters interdisciplinary work and began to pursue their vision.

Each choreographer brings her own background: Ballard is a member of the improv comedy group the Exit Players, Burrows is involved in theater and Long is a member of Yaledancers. Though neither Ballard nor Burrows is involved in dance at Yale, the three choreographers performed together at Harvard-Westlake, their Los Angeles high school. The ensemble consists of 15 dancers, the rest of whom are all in Yaledancers or A Different Drum, Yale’s modern dance group. The cast also includes several principal roles filled by students who are not affiliated with dance groups on campus.

Anna Goddu ’09, president of A Different Drum, has been dancing and choreographing at Yale since her freshman year. This is her first time working on a narrative piece.

“It is great to have dance being used in a creative way,” she remarked. “Other shows use showcases, which is important to have, but this also uses dance to explicitly tell a story.”

Goddu also mentioned that working across dance groups has bridged the gap between dance companies on campus.

Despite Long’s participation in Yaledancers, she emphasized the benefits of remaining unaffiliated from Yale’s dance performance groups.

“For the sake of audience, just another dance show of a dance group comes with all sorts of expectations, so having a show that is unaffiliated is a really nice opportunity to involve other people on campus,” she said.

Burrows noted that finding rehearsal space has been a constant struggle, given Yale’s limited number of practice rooms. But she also acknowledged that an independent project gave them the freedom to mix and match disparate dance styles, a trait absent from other dance groups on campus, she said.

The three girls reached beyond the dancing community to other artistic spheres at Yale to create the hybrid universe through which Alice will twirl. Set designer Alexander Newman-Wise ’08, costume designer Mona Elsayed ’08 and music supervisor Theo Spielberg ’10 used the story’s fantastical elements to enhance their work.

Newman-Wise described Wonderland as a place “where nothing is what it seems.” An architecture major, who noted his affinity for bodies moving through space, he based his design on one of the novel’s lines about “the telescoping effect of shrinking.”

“I wanted to play with illusions of flatness and illusions of depth, to create impressions of a certain kind of space and subvert them,” he explained. “This related to the digital age. I am creating spaces that don’t really exist.”

For Elsayed, a self-proclaimed amateur in costume design, cited the difficulties in uniting the production’s digital element with her own preconceived notion of Wonderland.

“The costumes aren’t explicitly ‘digital,’ ” Elsayed explained, “but they do sort of evoke the randomness and disorienting nature of Internet encounters … the fact that we were dealing with an Internet concept meant that there was room for whimsy, illogical characters and unpredictability.”

Spielberg also exercised the experimental angle. From pop to electronic, his transitions and soundtrack lean toward the unconventional, reflecting the magical nature of www.onderland itself.

In addition to its nonsensical elements, www.onderland has a self-reflective core, challenging the audience to shrink and grow with Alice, to immerse themselves in Alice’s world. For both the audience and the performers, this union is seamless.

Cyberspace has become everyone’s Wonderland.

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