It started, of course, as a whimsical 19th century children’s book. In the 1950s, it was transformed into a Disney cartoon. And 60 years later, Tim Burton turned it into a piece of modern cinema.
Now, “Alice in Wonderland” is being reimagined as a ballet at the Jersey Shore. And not your typical ballet, its creators insist.
Lewis Carroll’s psychedelic fable has been given the ballet treatment before. But the brand new version being performed by the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater in Deal Park from Aug. 18-25 mixes dance, musical theatre storytelling, live orchestral classical music, a children’s choir, and a dash of digital art, explains choreographer and director Gabriel Chajnik.
It’s a combination that makes sense considering the vivid and lyrical world that Carroll created.
“People will really be transported to Wonderland,” Chajnik says.
“Alice” is the third piece Chajnik’s company has staged in the year since it launched at Axelrod Performing Arts Center as New Jersey’s newest professional ballet troupe.
And it all started in a swimming pool. Sort of.
Chajnik, the company’s founding director, is a veteran dancer who studied at Julliard and performed with the American Repertory Ballet. For years, he lived in Milford, a small town in northwestern New Jersey. But Chajnik and his husband moved to Ocean Grove, right next to Asbury Park (you know: the town with the tent houses and the giant church-like theatre).
When Chajnik mentioned he wanted to learn how to swim better, his husband had a suggestion: Use the pool at the Jewish Community Center in nearby Deal.
There, Chajnik happened to meet Jess Levy, the CEO of the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, and Andrew Deprisco, the theater’s artistic director.
“I was wearing my swimsuit basically,” Chajnik recalls, laughing. “They said, ‘Gabriel, you came right at the perfect time. Because we’d really like to start a dance company here. We feel the area needs the ballet presence.’”
Indeed, there have long been professional ballet companies in the northern (New Jersey Ballet in Morristown) and central (Princeton Ballet School) parts of the Garden State. Now, Axelrod is the only one in Monmouth County.
The troupe put on its inaugural show last August with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Then, in January, they staged a version of “The Jungle Book” in collaboration with a classical Indian dance master.
Before this, Axelrod’s main focus had been presenting regional versions of Broadway musicals, like “Aida,” “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Guys & Dolls.”
That, Chajnik said, inspired him to make the new ballet company more theatrical than classical.
“Although I’m a classicist, I didn’t really want to bring the classicism right away into the community,” he explains. “Because we need to build up the audience for ballet, and we need to really tell people what ballet is and how ballet is evolving.”
Chajnik describes what he’s doing at Axelrod to be “ballet opera.”
With “Alice,” there’s a live orchestra conducted by Jason Tramm, the company’s music director and a choral professor at Seton Hall University. The original score was written by New York City composer David Winkler.
There’s also a 15-child choir called the Wonderland Voices, sometimes singing snippets of Lewis Carroll’s poetry. And then there’s technology called video mapping that adds a digital element to the scenery.
Tramm, also the former musical director of the New Jersey State Opera, says most dancers he’s worked with prefer pre-recorded music.
“Gabriel is working with high-level classical music and live musicians, and the energy dancers feel with live music,” the conductor says.
Winkler, the composer, says the project led to “a completely new approach to composing music for the theater.”
“It wasn’t just a reading of the story,” he explains. “The combination of the elements gives you a more enriched interpretation of the storyline.”
Chajnik says the foundation for all of it is dance and ballet.
“But music is the queen and theater is the grandmother,” he says. “’Alice’ is such a visual thing. The whole poetry is about building images. I’m not only working with technology from 2019, but also I’m working with the images the music starts generating as you listen to it.”
Winkler says there’s another piece that makes this “Alice” engrossing, especially for younger audiences: Many young performers are involved.
“Typically, when young people come to see a classical ballet, they don’t often see people their own age in the production,” the composer explains. “It makes it almost like your community is out there on the stage, and yet they’re doing something that is completely original and really dynamic.”
Plus, there’s a local connection. Playing the role of the White Rabbit is David Felice, a native of nearby Jackson who has been dancing for a decade but recently took time off to serve in the Air Force. This is his second production since coming home. He played Mowgli in Axelrod’s re-telling of “The Jungle Book” earlier this year.
“I love my country, and I felt I needed to give back to the country,” Felice says. “I now feel fulfilled in terms of doing that.”
Next up for the company: a new — and yes, unusual — version of “The Nutcracker.” Chajnik is collaborating with Alex Levine, the bassist of New Brunswick band The Gaslight Anthem, who’ll add a layer of rock to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score.
Chajnik says there’s a “common denominator” to the ballets he’s chosen for Axelrod. Look at Mowgli, Alice, and Clara, one of the characters in “The Nutcracker.”
“I decided,” the choreographer says, “to do stories of a young character that goes through a transformation and goes through a journey.”