Sunday, 26 March 2017

An Adventure Indeed

John Teniel's White Rabbit

Chelmsford Ballet Company Alice's Adventures Chelmsford Civic Theatre, 25 March 2017, 19:30

I have been coming to the Chelmsford Civic Theatre for the Chelmsford Ballet Company's annual show since 2014 (see The Nutcracker as it really should be danced - No Gimmicks but with Love and Joy 20 March 2014, A Delight Indeed 22 March 2015 and A Real Beauty: Chelmsford Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty 25 March 2016). Every show has been excellent but Alice's Adventures which I saw last night was by far the best.

Although the company has staged ballets based on Alice in Wonderland twice before (see the list of productions on the company's website), this was an entirely new production with a new plot, new choreography and new designs with some amazing computer generated graphics and inspired dancing. Save for the score which was Carl Davis's arrangement of various works by Tchaikovsky for English National Ballet's 1995 production of Alice in Wonderland everything was created by members of the company. Annette Potter, the company's artistic director, contributed the story and choreography, Ann Starling the designs and Phil Rhodes the special effects.

The ballet began with a prologue where Alice and her sister took a stroll in a park. There they took tea at an open air café called Hatter's run by a rather eccentric proprietor of the same name. There they spotted a hurried and forgetful businessman with a predilection for carrots, a bossy schoolmistress with a party of children, a sleepy urchin, a street vendor selling carrots among other things and a pair of workmen manhandling a tree. Alice was drawn to a hole in which the workmen tried to plant the tree. She stood on the brink. Then a gauze curtain fell onto which images of Alice floating through space were projected. The curtain rose to show her recumbent on the floor of a strange land with food that made her grow and drink that made her shrink. All the individuals that Alice had seen in the park were transposed to this land. The businessman became a giant white rabbit, the café proprietor the Mad Hatter, the schoolmistress the Queen of Hearts, the urchin the dormouse and the vendor the duchess. Alice took tea with the Mad Hatter, met Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, played croquet with flamingos and hedgehogs and encountered all sorts of other characters narrowly escaping decapitation at the command of the Queen only through a rapid return to the real world where she emerged from what had become a rather disturbing dream.

Annette Potter had a cast that ranged in skill and experience from the company's guest artist, Andrei Teodor Iliescu, to some very young ballet students and she had to create dances for them all.  Her choreography was incredibly ingenious. Here are just two examples. The experience of growing after eating the food labelled "East Me" was achieved by Alice's stretches on pointe. The experience of shrinking by splits on the floor. Potter drew out Iliescu's virtuosity while allowing everyone in between from the youngest student to Alice and the other soloists to shine.

There were a lot of dancers in the show and each and every one excelled from the tiniest hedgehog upwards. Sadly I shall omit some names that deserve substantial credit. All I can say is that you were all stars. You must have felt that from the loud and sustained applause at the reverence and at many points throughout the show.

Iliescu was magnificent as the white rabbit and carrot crunching businessman. Tall and slender all eyes were drawn to him, particularly his graceful jumps and turns. I had last seen him in Leeds in Chris Marney's Scenes from a Wedding for Ballet Central (see Dazzled 3 May 2015). According to the programme, Iliescu came to Central after Sara Matthews spotted him in Lausanne (see his performance as Albrecht in the 2013 competition). He was offered a full scholarship and has been here ever since.

Iliescu was partnered delightfully by Darci Wilsher whom I had last seen in Marney's Carnival of the Animals for the 2015 show. She was the perfect Alice, a role that demanded not only a mastery of technique but also of mime and drama.

Andrew Potter was a splendid Hatter. A great character dancer, he had impressed me as Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker. I understand that Gary Avis was in the audience on Thursday night. I think he would have been reminded of himself. Samantha Ellis was a fearsome queen and schoolmarm but also occasionally a fetchingly flirtatious young woman whom we couldn't hate. Isabelle Fellows was a fine dormouse, Stacey Byrne an impressive duchess, Scarlett Man a beautiful bluebell, Megan Roberts and Alice Brecknell were a hilarious Dum and Dee and Lucy Abbot an equally amusing half stoned caterpillar.  No show by Chelmsford Ballet would be complete without an appearance by Marion Pettet. She entered in the prologue, a small role but one that she performed with her usual aplomb.

The sets and costumes deserve a special mention. They literally jumped out of Teniel's illustrations. I particularly liked the Cheshire cat which glided above the stage from a gantry. The company has a genius of a special effects designer in Phil Rhodes. I can think of at least one choreographer inspired by film not a million miles from Leeds but who is now in Germany who would have been mightily impressed had he seen those computer generated effects.

This is the company's 70th year and it has achieved a lot. It has launched more than a few careers in dance including that of Cara O'Shea, one of my favourite teachers at Northern Ballet Academy who is also a talented choreographer (see my review of Small Steps and Other Pieces - Leeds CAT End of Term Show 2 July 2016). Chelmsford Ballet will also have inspired three generations of kids to step up to the barre and created a considerable audience for dance in Essex. It is a great example of what dancers, teachers and other artists in a medium size town can do. We have the same building blocks in great profusion in the Northern Powerhouse. Would it not be wonderful to follow Chelmsford Ballet's example there.

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