In their preparation for rehearsals at Texas Ballet Theater, dancers Alexandra Farber, Carolyn Judson and Michelle Taylor engage in the usual stretches on the floor and the barre, limbering their muscles for a day of dance. This time, they add an additional exercise.
“A fly and flea flew into a flue,” they repeat. Then it’s on to “you know New York, you need New York, you know you need unique New York.”
Those are common vocal warmups for actors or anyone about to speak onstage. But it’s uncommon for ballet dancers, who express thoughts and dialogue through physicality. Then again, most ballets aren’t Ben Stevenson’s version of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Alice,” which Stevenson debuted at the Houston Grand Ballet when he was there, and has been performed by Texas Ballet Theater only once before, in 2007, calls for the title character to speak four times throughout the work — at the beginning and end, and twice in the middle of her adventures through the strange world of the Mad Hatter, smoking Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat and many other famously fantastical inhabitants.
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“It definitely gives you another element to think about,” says Judson, who is the only one of the three who has played Alice before, in 2007. “We’re used to taking care of our bodies, and now we’re having to take care of our voice, too.”
Judson plays Alice on Friday and Saturday nights; Farber at the Saturday and Sunday matinees; and Taylor on Sunday night.
And they’re getting expert help from vocal coach and actor Brandon Smith, a Texan with many film, TV and regional theater credits who worked with Stevenson on “Alice” twice in Houston, and in 2007 in Fort Worth. He not only helps them with the dialogue, but with Alice’s British accent.
This time, he says, it has been easy.
“With this particular company, these guys were so remarkable,” Smith says. “I worked with ballet dancers who didn’t take to this naturally, or had a pronounced New Yawk [how he said it] accent that was hard to shake. These women are all really articulate and well-spoken.”
Dialogue in dance
Spoken dialogue is rare in dance, and when it happens, it’s usually in modern and contemporary dance. When words need to be conveyed in classical ballets like “La Sylphide” or “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s done through pantomime, with its own language that employs billowy gestures and expressive eyes and face.
For the famously curious Alice, who talks her way through her discoveries in Wonderland, the dialogue has seemed natural, the three dancers agree.
“I think that helps us find her,” says Taylor, who has studied film acting and is comfortable speaking in the ballet. “Actually having the dialogue helps because you’re not just showing feelings and emotion, you’re getting thoughts of this girl as she’s making these decisions.”
“I feel like of all the characters in this story,” Farber adds, “she would be the one to speak, because she’s so curious.”
Plus, Stevenson’s choreography does not demand that Alice speak and dance at the same time.
“Ben’s choreography makes Alice easier than you would think to play,” Taylor says. “It’s not just plies and movement telling the story, it’s what you would expect in a place like this. You would never not know that she’s in Wonderland.”
Training the voice takes some discipline, just as Pilates and exercise are important for dancers’ physical maintenance. Vocal coach Smith advised the dancers to drink lots of herbal tea and to breathe in steam as much as they can.
“Have a steam machine in your dressing room, don’t sleep with your mouth open, especially under a fan,” he says, “and no tobacco, no caffeine, and no alcohol.”
Not to mention plenty of “the Leith police dismisseth us” on repeat.
Texas Ballet Theater: Alice in Wonderland
- 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
- Bass Hall, Fort Worth
- 877-828-9200; http://www.texasballettheater.org
- Also performed June 2-4 at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas.