Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses

Alice in Wonderland, like the Wizard of Oz, has never been a story that has truly enthralled me, but KineticArchitecture Dance Theatre’s January production of Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses, choreographed by and starring Arrie Davidson — akin to The Builders Association’s Elements of Oz — used its familiar narrative as a launching point to boldly reimagine the story.

Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz are stories of girls on impossible adventures, fraught with the idea of never being able to return home again. Both heroines learn to ask for what they want, and discover in their heart of hearts that what they were looking for was within themselves, all along. Growing up, I always objected to the lesson for little girls in these stories that they should be content with what they have at home, rather than seeking something more or different in the wide world. Rewatching these reinterpretations with a few more years under my belt, nostalgic for the simplicity of childhood, I understand the empowerment that comes from choosing what you have, and finding value in family and authenticity.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses is a dance show with artful, varied choreography and fluid company member collaboration from an ensemble that clearly knows itself well enough to play to its strengths. Davidson and her partner Meghann Bronson-Davidson have been trained in circus arts, which inspired a haunting duet between Bronson-Davidson and Brittany Posas, as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum — ambitious, strong circus twins engaged in a perpetual balancing act. I was mesmerized by moments of synchronicity, and enjoyed puzzling over the invented significance of gestures such as the repeated climbing of each dancer’s hands as she slapped her body in a circular motion.

Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses was commissioned by Dixon Place, where it had a limited engagement in December 2016. This production is the first full-length work by KineticArchitecture Dance Theatre, and as such, the performance still had room to grow. We could have done without some of the Cheshire Cat’s narration, for instance, and the repeated breaking of the fourth wall, with dancers flinging themselves forcefully upon audience members.

And yet, conversely, the White Rabbit’s over-the-top comical vamping in red glitter lipstick at the beginning of the show, taking selfies with audience members, gave an opportunity for certain people to engage and feel included in a way they might not otherwise have been. (The iPhone in this prelude, presented as our 2016 looking glass was certainly not lost on any of us, as well.) Davidson is a transgender woman, and depicts the White Rabbit as a transgender character, including a fabulous Marilyn Monroe impersonation and a heartbreaking soliloquy, rife with double entendres about the character’s personal history. Lines from her character such as, “Have you ever thought that perhaps it’s a butterfly born in the body of a caterpillar?” (encouraging Alice to think twice about the Caterpillar) gain a second resonance, given her presence in the story.

Moreover, the nude scenes were some of the most effective and meaningful I have ever seen on stage. They were neither self-conscious nor seductive, but rather powerful feminist assertions of womanhood. The first of the two was a spin off of the chess game from the original Wonderland, and opens with the dancers lying spread eagle behind oversized chess pieces on the floor, so we don’t even realize they are naked until they rise up behind Alice. The second scene was the grand finale, with women scrabbling over each other in the race to the crown, which Alice eventually grabs for herself. (The White Rabbit is excluded from this rat race by the other women, because she isn’t “like them,” continuing the ever-present trans dialogue running through the show.) The show closes with Alice in spotlight wearing the crown, draped in an enormous red velvet robe, with all the other naked company members tucked beneath it.

Overall, Wonder/Through the Looking Glass Houses was a feminist retelling of the old “down the rabbit hole” narrative, with a wide-ranging soundtrack, from Lady Marmalade to rock opera and fabulous performances by all the company members: Chloe Markewich, Cecily McCullough, and Dara Swisher, in addition to those already mentioned. KineticArchitecture is a company of white women doing something rather different, and I look forward to following them on their next adventure.

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