UT alum brings his fantastical ballet ‘Alice (in Wonderland)’ to Austin

This Mother’s Day weekend, Austinites will have the chance to fall down the rabbit hole at the Ballet Austin premiere of the kid-friendly “Alice (in Wonderland),” choreographed by former Ballet Austin dancer and University of Texas alumnus Septime Webre.

Dramatic sets, wacky costumes, high-flying antics, an original score and dance that mixes classical ballet with modern, ballroom and hip-hop moves bring this storybook tale to the stage for a two-hour, two-act retelling of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the weirdly wonderful book by Lewis Carroll.

“Alice (in Wonderland)” marks the fourth Webre work Ballet Austin has presented.

He created “Alice” during his tenure as artistic director of the Washington Ballet. Since leaving that position in 2016, he’s founded Halcyon Stage and is setting his existing and new ballets on companies across the country.

But Austin holds a special place in Webre’s heart — and stomach: “I love, love, love the shrimp tacos at Torchy’s!” he said.

The youngest of seven sons, Webre’s upbringing was nearly as eclectic as that of fictional Alice’s.

He was the first child in his family to be born in the U.S., his older siblings having grown up in Cuba. The family then moved to the Bahamas, where he was raised until he was 12 years old, before moving to Brownsville for Webre’s junior high and high school years, though they frequented Ivory Coast and Sudan during that time.

He landed at the University of Texas in the 1980s as a history/pre-law major and even worked for Ann Richards when she was treasurer of Texas. Although Webre’s family had always emphasized professional trades, he found himself drawn to dance and theater and began training with Stanley Hall at Austin Ballet Theatre.

Richards saw the pull of ballet on Webre, he said: “Knowing I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer, she’d always say, in that trademark twang, ‘Sep-taim, yer waist is as big as one-a mah thighs.’”

Eugene Slavin and Alexandra Nadal invited Webre to join Ballet Austin, where he danced professionally just before Stephen Mills, current artistic director, joined the company.

As one can imagine, Webre has been surrounded by his share of characters in life, so it seems appropriate he would take on Alice’s story.

“I’ve always found the story compelling — this little girl’s finding herself by encountering so many outrageous characters. It’s so trippy, and the characters so outsized and exaggerated. But Alice describes them in a kind of droll way. I’ve had a marvelous time with the physicality of the characters.”

For “Alice,” Webre worked with composer Matthew Pierce to develop an original score that will be performed live by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, with Pierce playing violin and viola and conducting from the podium.

Said Webre, “For some years I have been creating exclusively full-length ballets based on great works of literature, and there are some distinct challenges. Building a score from scratch is an amazing experience, and discovering so much about the characters and the structure in the process is really exhilarating.”

Pierce and Webre have worked on four ballets together, with a fifth on the way.

Said Pierce, “For me, dance is the physical embodiment of music’s imagination. There is no greater thrill than seeing the first rehearsal when the music has triggered a choreographer’s impulse to move. It’s always bigger and better than I imagine when I am writing … (Webre and I) have a symbiotic working relationship. (We have) a sixth sense about narrative, the order, the form, the highs and lows and the pacing.”

The “Alice” score fuses traditional 18th-century ballet archetypes with modern styles.

The violin purrs for the Cheshire Cat; the Caterpillar floats to an Arabic scale, with flight choreography by Flying by Foy; the Fish and Frog Footmen dance a 12-bar blues; Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum joke around to a string quartet version of the theme of 1970s TV show “Starsky and Hutch”; and Alice has her own Gaelic folk theme.

“I’ve been a fan of Matthew Pierce’s for some time. I’m drawn to his deft use of strings, the way his music dances, and the wit in the music,” Webre said.

Webre has also worked with costumer designer Liz Vandal for nearly 20 years.

“She’s brilliant, and the costumes she designed are astonishing,” he said. “They accomplish so much storytelling but are also chic, surprising and so very wearable. She makes the dancers look so damn sexy.”

The wearability of the elaborate costumes is important, as the movement — performed by both Ballet Austin’s professionals and more than 40 student performers from the Ballet Austin Academy — is very athletic, with contemporary twists and turns.

In one scene, a nod to traditional ballet “Swan Lake” tests the dancers’ technical capabilities: “That section is designed to challenge the artists classically. We’re having a lot of fun with it!” Webre said.

Ultimately, Webre’s ballet doesn’t lose sight of the original book’s coming-of-age story.

“I’m a kid person,” Webre said. “I love their innocence and their enthusiasm, the way they look at the world with such wonder, so it seemed important to have their presence in the ballet. It’s been terrific to come back and coach the company.”

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