Underland: White Nightmare

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

I have an appreciation for folks who can take classic stories and turn them on their heads. It seems like an easy undertaking, but it isn’t. To do it right, you have to stay true to the foundation of the original story and then carefully craft differences that introduce new elements that are wholly your own—but are still believable in the context of the original story.

Angel Castro and his talented cast of dancers did exactly that with Underland: White Nightmare, the premiere performance by Castro’s dance company, Halo Movement Collective. The show was a dastardly take on Alice in Wonderland that was both frighteningly innovative and frighteningly familiar.

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Innovative because Angel re-imagined the world that Alice finds herself in when she tumbles down the rabbit hole. Instead of a vibrant landscape populated by zany characters—something out of a Disney coloring book—Underland had us blanketed in white. From a gnarled, white tree to the white paper cranes observing the action from above to the white costuming, everything was stark and blank, which made it all a little menacing, the white reminiscent not of purity and grace but of insane asylums, hospitals, and desolate, foreign landscapes. It was, indeed, a white nightmare.

Audience members were separated from the action by metal lattices that not only bisected characters and scenes in a really interesting and artful way, but also made us feel like we were watching something we shouldn’t be. Perhaps we were at the zoo watching dangerous animals from behind a fence. Perhaps the barricades were there for our own protection.

Of course, the lattices played a major part in a pivotal scene at the end of the show, but more on that later. First, I want to tell you about the characters…

Traditionally, the focus of Alice in Wonderland is on, well, Alice. It’s her story. Yes, it’s peppered with her interactions with other zany characters, but at the end of the day, we really only care about Alice.

Angel’s Underland provided a different experience by showing us each of the characters as individuals. The show began with Alice’s fall into Underland, but then the stage was passed to each individual character–or duos in some cases–so they could introduce themselves. Of course, there were group pieces, too, but the solos and duos were extremely rich with character.

Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, played by Anna McLellan and Alexis Stephens, seemed like they couldn’t function without each other. Always a step ahead or a step behind, they moved together and then connected with seemingly vacant gazes. They reminded me a bit of minions, but in the best way possible—easily molded and ready to strike. These tour guides of Underland showed Alice her way to the tea party.

The Mad Hatter, played by Jose Soto, appeared to be dealing with addiction, shaking, spinning, and paranoid as all hell. His twitchy actions made me itch. And I know I’ve been watching too much Breaking Bad, but he appeared to be a product of some magical meth. Or perhaps it was opium tea that was on the menu at the tea party. A very merry unbirthday it was as Tweedle Dum, Tweedle Dee, The Mad Hatter, and Alice all went on a drug trip together.

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

Underland Flowers, played by Liz Ann Hewett and Rianna Rhoads, continued to lure Alice deeper and deeper into Underland, exhibiting both a haunting grace and crazy athleticism as they partnered together. It was like a Waltz of the Flowers duo, but instead of pretty and fragile they were on the brink of madness, all loose energy.

The Caterpillar, played by Jenna Lyn Myers, seemed to have any insatiable obsession with movement, contorting herself into new shapes as she underwent a metamorphosis. The least menacing of the characters, Alice watched the caterpillar move with a smile on her face. Too bad all the characters turned on her later.

The Red Queen, played by Charlene Norris, exhibited both vanity and insecurity by constantly checking her reflection in a mirror. Who knew the Red Queen was secretly an obsessive-compulsive who fears either her good looks fading or her very self fading while she isn’t looking. Though she exhibited ruthlessness in the final moments of the show, in solitude she was almost a sad character.

And Alice, played by Kalli Sparish, well, Alice was just lost, physically and metaphorically. Kalli occupied a really unique space with this character, because she’s a wonderful actress and so her movements were committed and intentional, but they looked tentative. This was the perfect balance as we know Alice is a tourist in Underland. Her emotions and reactions are very real, but she’s nervous and unsure.

By getting some back story on each character experience, we stumble upon pathos. Though this is a mad, mad, mad world and most of the characters are—let’s face it—villains, we feel for them. We start to understand their actions—and we also start to wonder if they are really evil or if they are simply a product of their environment–this stark, lonely underworld. It’s conflicting and uncomfortable and brilliant.

Of course, we wouldn’t have felt this way if the dancers were not also committed actors. And they were. Each dancer attacked their role and their choreography with gusto. And speaking of choreography, hats off to Angel. As a dancer myself, I left the show thinking, That’s how dancers want to move. Dancers will be seeking Angel out so they can experience and perform that type of movement. It’s something fresh for the dance scene in Arizona, which we really need right now. Don’t get me wrong–there are beautiful and stunning companies in the Arizona dance scene, but they’ve all been established for quite some time. It’s nice to see something so shiny and new. There’s something exciting about a new venture, a new artistic voice.

But back to the show!

Underland did not end well for Alice. Instead of painting roses, the cast of characters surrounded Alice and painted her red as the Red Queen watched, because I’m pretty sure she ordered the painting. Strips of fabric were pulled from pouches of Alice’s costume and tied to the metal lattices near the audience. Alice writhed in the final moments of the show and then sank before us. The final haunting image was Alice’s corset hanging from the red strips of fabric while she ran backstage for the curtain call. It was such a visceral image, I wanted to pull out my camera phone and take a picture.

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I found myself in tears when congratulating Angel after the show. He did it all—the concept, the choreography, the costuming, the music selection, the minutiae it takes to put on a dance show—and he offered up his art and craft not for a fee but for donations so that the Phoenix community could experience his vision without worrying about the cost of a dance show. In short, he succeeded. Brilliantly. And I’m very proud of him for it.

I told Angel he better get working on his next show. The Phoenix scene needs to see more of his work.

And if he doesn’t get to it, I’m going to kick his ass.

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