Beginning Friday night, Ballet San Antonio will present four performances over three days of its new take on the beloved and often-interpreted Lewis Carroll story Alice in Wonderland.

As most know, the story – a rumination on the power of imagination that doles out beauty and absurdity in equal measure – follows young Alice as she is carried away by her imagination into a magical, preposterous, and at times menacing world of her own creation. In that nether realm, Alice encounters some of the most memorable characters in literary history and finds reality itself to be a malleable and wholly unpredictable beast.

A fan favorite since its publication in 1865, Alice has spawned innumerable film and performance adaptations over the years. The piece has been so widely interpreted in fact that one might reasonably wonder what possibilities for reinvention could yet remain.

However, the seemingly limiting nature of ballet, which relies solely on movement and visual presentation and not on language, paradoxically opens up possibilities in the realm of interpretation that don’t exist in theater, film, or text. 

Veteran choreographer Brian Enos and visual artist Luis Grané, who first worked on Alice together at Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet, have exploited the art form’s nuance to produce a fresh take on Alice with Ballet San Antonio.

Grané is a newcomer to the ballet world. Based in Los Angeles, he has an impressive résumé that includes years of working as an animator and designer for such studios as Sony, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Disney, and Pixar. He’s also a muralist and an experimental filmmaker.

To bring an updated perspective to Alice, Grané has employed projection and animation to create a set that is an immersive experience, not bound by the constraints of working with physical materials. The creative freedom that this approach offers is, Grané noted, a bit like the limitless imaginative experience of Alice herself.

“I love the story of Alice, and all of the surreal and whimsical and abstract aspects,” Grané said, “but I wanted to avoid the classic Victorian take on the visuals of the story.”

Instead, Grané opted for simple shapes and designs that fit more with his own personal style, influenced by the Bauhaus school and Japanese art. 

“It’s all very minimalistic and simple,” he said, “but still makes this rich and wonderful experience. The story gives you so much room to experiment visually.”

Grané said this new visual take on Alice “works because the book is really so trippy and surreal and imaginatively fertile.”

“The book is already this very individual experience for each reader,” he said. As such, he feels that “the ability to play with reflections, mirrors, and multiplying images,” as animated projection affords, “actually serves the story more faithfully” than more typical approaches.

In designing the choreography, Enos said that he spent time considering the book as well as a few movie versions of Alice. He “kept elements that [he] felt were most iconic and elements that move the story forward the most.”

“I also wanted to use moments in the story that the audience would most recognize and relate to,” he said. 

For Enos, attempting to convey the wordplay and nonsense that are hallmarks of the original text proved a delightful challenge. 

“Conveying that sensibility without language was both the most fun and challenging aspect of this work,” he said, “because you have to translate all that to movement.”

Enos said that dancers also were given considerable freedom to bring their own ideas and emotions about the story to bear on their parts. Ultimately, Enos said the result feels fresh and incorporates elements of classical and contemporary – or even experimental – dance.

“I got really lucky,” Enos said of collaborating with Grané. “Right away I loved his visual ideas.”

Ballet San Antonio will stage four performances of Alice in Wonderland, beginning Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and additional performance times, click here.

James Courtney

James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.