The Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre, Vancouver – March 10, 2016
In Wonderland, choreographer Andrea Miller draws on overly familiar characters and situations to re-enact tensions between the individual and the collective.
Wonderland, which premiered in 2010 and was reworked in 2011, opens with a nod to nature through chirping birdsong and the thunderous sound of galloping hooves (that sound effect reappears throughout the piece). The eight energetic dancers are dressed in grey bodysuits, designed by Jose Solis, that included a pastie-sized bra, a patched crop-top and a striped top like a whalebone corset. Covering their heads is a swim cap with thick tufts of hair sprouting from the top. The attire is quirky yet uniform, and allows the dancers to embody a range of characters in the show’s diverse scenes.
Perhaps this diversity took away from some of the continuity. The show jumps from scene to scene through a jumble of re-enactments, paired with an equally choppy soundtrack. It wasn’t until about two-thirds into the show that I got a sense of cohesion. A narrative is not always necessary, but I think that each scene should have an apparent reason for being in the show and in the order presented.
The way some scenes spoon-fed the show’s ideas also deflected my interest. In one, a group of dancers stand indifferently around a lone dancer who is in the middle, struggling to contort her body into a certain pose; it seemed too obvious a representation of an individual ostracized and of indifference. In another scene, a formation of dancers jerk obediently to each curt holler from one commanding dancer, and it seems too blatant an image of pack mentality. When one dancer lays protectively over another who is immobile on the ground and ignored by the others, the scene screams ‘compassion’.
The show slips in and out of a circus theme, a common theatrical setting that enables surreal and exaggerated portrayal. Dancers with wide, kooky grins lip-sync to the Mickey Mouse Club March. Their false pretense could suggest the irony of a coordinated evil (with the song becoming a sort of anthem of that) existing behind a child-like facade. However, when they lip-sync to the song Mr. Sandman, the frolicking chaos of that scene seems to fall into irretrievable looniness.
The second half digs deeper and gets more confrontational. A dancer lip-syncs to a song in a lilting female voice as he is flipped and turned acrobatically by two other dancers. No matter what position he is put into, he continues lip-syncing as if his only desire was to entice us into his mysterious realm. It brought a sinister edge that was subtle and affecting.
One dancer replays her role commanding the pack. With each call, now more callous than before, the pack complies, but this time they stand behind her as they all face the audience. Each movement toward us becomes more chilling by the way it suggests that we might be part of their pack and guilty of the same cruelty we earlier accused them of. Even so, the moments of provocation could have been taken further, and all together, the performance seems to be playing too safe.
The movement quality is mixed – athletic and grounded, with classical and modern dance technique, some mime and theatrical gestures – whatever suits each scene. At times, the dancers adopt the gesture of hands tucked in front of their chests like paws, in reference to the behaviour of animals. One by one, as they dive into a standing dancer of tall stature, they call up Miller’s inspiration for Wonderland – an art installation named Head On, by artist Cai-Guo Qiang, which mounts 99 stuffed wolves charging toward and colliding into a large glass panel. I saw this installation in a gallery in Shanghai and the static installation is rich with allegories. However, Wonderland relies too much on re-enactment to convey its points. I would’ve liked to see fresh interpretations and more distinct movement language.
Gallim Dance, established in 2007, is one of the better known contemporary dance companies from New York, and Miller’s work is award-winning and well-recognized. I had been wanting to see a company performance and Wonderland was the first. Maybe this piece, or maybe the performance on this particular evening, just wasn’t for me.
In the closing scene, the show concludes more or less where it began. In a way, I felt the same.