The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
July 13, 2022
The latest MOMIX production to make its way to New York, Alice, isn’t what you might think it is. But it isn’t what you might think it isn’t either. It depends on what path you want to follow, or whether you want to follow a path at all, and it doesn’t depend on where you’re going, as long as you’re going to the Joyce Theater. And if you do go to the Joyce Theater, there won’t be a path to follow; just multiple rabbit holes that lead to things curiouser and curiouser.
Maybe it would be easier to describe what Alice isn’t than what it is. It’s not Alice who doesn’t live here anymore – except the Alice in Alice doesn’t live here anymore either, and never did. It isn’t Alice’s Restaurant, though you can get anything you want in Alice, except you can’t eat it – though eating it is probably how you get to Alice in the first place. And it isn’t a burbling, chortling Jabberwock, even though the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. No, that doesn’t work either.
Let’s start over.
What MOMIX’s Alice undeniably is is a magical mystery tour and a visual cornucopia loosely based on scenes from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and inspired by Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit” the way some mind-expanding lubricant might inspire one who already thinks outside the box to think outside the box that’s outside the box. But more than anything else, Alice is an Experience. That it’s also great fun is icing on the cake – “eat me” cake or otherwise.
Conceived and directed by MOMIX’s Founder and Artistic Director Moses Pendleton (who had previously co-founded Pilobolus Dance Theater) and First Assistant (Associate Director) Cynthia Quinn, and apparently assisted in its development by anyone who has appeared in the production, Alice sports a laundry list of artistic collaborators with respect to lighting, projection, and music (curated by Pendleton), but by far the components of Alice that take precedence in a viewer’s mind, aside from the scene-specific choreography, are its video design (by Woodrow F. Dick III, who also served as Alice’s Production Manager and Lighting Supervisor), and its costumes design (by Phoebe Katzin).
The result of all these artistic collaborative efforts, and the MOMIX dancers’ performances, is a loosely-connected series of scenic vignettes – a travelogue of sorts – roughly corresponding to locations and events that take place during Alice’s adventures in Carroll’s book, but that’s where the relationship ends. Everything else in Alice is a different kind of trip – consistent with the possibilities implicit in Slick’s famous song, which still packs as much of an emotional wallop now as it did when I heard it performed live at a concert by Jefferson Airplane at a place called the Fillmore East longer ago than I care to remember.
Alice, which premiered in 2018 and has been presented in multiple locations around the world, is comprised of 22 scenes of various length, plus a finale that is its own little performance. Some of the scenes are connected visually, but most just “happen,” presumably in the course of Alice’s wanderings (e.g., if it’s Tuesday it must be the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party). But Alice doesn’t wander from scene to scene; sometimes she’s there; sometimes she isn’t; and sometimes she’s there via a surrogate. Complicating things is that there are multiple Alices. But since Carroll’s story isn’t followed precisely, none of this matters.
The initial scene, which opens with a photograph image of Carroll projected on a scrim (a photograph image of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Carroll, is projected later in the piece), begins with surrogates for Carroll and Alice playing on “A Summer Day” (the title of the scene), with each having a grand time as Carroll directs Alice’s positioning on a combination see-saw and ladder, lifting her higher and higher and spinning her faster and faster, and obviously obtaining great pleasure out of seeing Alice’s great pleasure. While well-executed and perhaps an essential introduction, this scene was one of the few that was problematic to me because it could be seen as reflecting what some might argue is Carroll’s nefarious intent. But that’s a vigorously disputed rabbit-hole that I do not plan to explore here.
I won’t spend time here with a description of each of the succeeding scenes – I couldn’t describe them sufficiently anyway. Suffice it to say that Pendleton and company explore, among other venues, Alice’s (four of them) going down rabbit holes that look something like oversized mole hills (with white plastic buckets over them), a “Trip of Rabbits” (a stimulating title that accurately reflects its scene); “The Tweedles” (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, squared, with photos of Gerber-like babies’ faces – smiling and frowning – appended to the moving bodies); “The Cheshire Cat”; “The Lobster Quadrille” (a phenomenal costume and performance scene that, to my eye, has little to do with “The Spider and the Fly” – except there also is this spider…); the various card queens (diamonds, clubs, spades, and of course hearts); and a “Bed of Roses,” which features rose-shaped and colored objects that float through the air and into the hands of recipients like dandelion fluffs.
The finest of the scenes, to me, were “Advice from a Blue Caterpillar” which features a blue caterpillar formed of balls (like oversized exercise balls) manipulated by the dancers to move caterpillar-like, but which subsequently subdivides into ball subsets of the original caterpillar, and which included a visual pun that even I got), “The Queen of Clubs vs. the Queen of Spades,” in which the card-warrior queens travel across the stage on the backs or arms of male dancer roller-skates, and the final scene, “Ask Alice” (to Slick’s song), in which one of the Alices grows 10 feet tall in a manner and with the impact of the expanding tree in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.”
If there’s a weak point in Alice, albeit a minor one, it’s the score (except for “White Rabbit”). Some of the music for individual scenes, at least by their titles (as listed in the program’s music credits) appear to bear some relationship to Carroll’s story, but most don’t, and all appear to have been chosen solely to support the choreographed movement in each scene. By itself that’s neither unusual nor a failing – but here the music by itself comes across as nondescript rhythmic sounds. But then, the music isn’t as critical here as it may be in other dances; here the music is enabling rather than enlightening, and perhaps it was essential for Alice to have been crafted as it was.
Ultimately, Alice is a work of visual art that is reducible to a collection of images that linger in the mind long after the performance ends, much as Carroll’s book and Slick’s song are hardwired into their readers’ and listeners’ collective psyches. It may not be particularly coherent – the common thread only being components of Carroll’s story – but at the very least it’s a paean to imagination, surrealism, whimsy, and multi-disciplined artistic conception and visual invention.
The MOMIX dancers, unfortunately, are not identified by the scenes in which they appeared – understandably, I suppose, because most dancers appeared in each of the scenes. With the frequent scene changes (and, more importantly, the frequent costume changes), Alice appears to have a cast of thousands (well…dozens), but as the celebratory concluding scene indicates, there are “only” eight of them who do the work of dozens. In alphabetical order (as listed in the program), the dancers were Heather Conn, Nathaniel Davis, Aurelie Garcia, Seah Hagan, Sean Langford, Elise Pacicco, Jade Primicias, and Colton Wall. As an ensemble of individuals they were an amazingly cohesive and capable group.
Curiously, Alice isn’t the piece’s exclusive title. In the program, the listing of scenes is preceded by the heading “Down the Rabbit Hole,” the implication being that maybe Alice will eventually have a second Act – like Carroll’s Alice series. Perhaps MOMIX will eventually add an Act 2 titled “Through the Looking Glass,” with its own set of scenes, and maybe an Act 3 comprised of images derived from Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” that would fill the viewer’s head with yet more mimsyish ideas; only the viewer, like Alice, might not exactly know what they are. One can only imagine.
When you go on your trip at the Joyce (Alice’s run continues through July 24), I recommend that you not think about any particular story, but just let Alice’s magic wash over you and feed your head with its imagery. If you do, you’ll find yourself smiling all the way home like a Cheshire Cat, perhaps passing some borogoves, or at least a White Rabbit, en route.