RALEIGH, NC – The Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, White Rabbit, and The Queen of Hearts are some of the most recognizable characters from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The story of Alice following the White Rabbit who is notoriously “running late to a very important date” is beloved by young and old today and is performed onstage dozens of times every year. It’s been beautifully mastered into a ballet by the directors at The Royal Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, and soon to be the upcoming 2024-2025 season at Carolina Ballet. Local pre-professional ballet program Cary Ballet Company joined in on the wonder and sent their very own Alice leaping down the rabbit hole.

Alice In Wonderland

A ballet dancer dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland

Lila Bauer as Alice. Photo credit: Raleigh Dance Photography

At the bottom of the rabbit hole, the story got lost in the lack of sets/props and ineffective music choices, but was carried through by stunning technique and breathtaking costume design. Choreographed by Jill Bahr on the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater stage, 24 main characters and a dozen other ensemble dancers showed off their skills and technique that they had been honing all season long for family, friends, and other loved ones. There was not one empty seat in the theater, which was so heartwarming to see as a longtime lover and performer of ballet.

Ballet dancers in costume as March Hare and White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland

Santino Benjamin Herrera and Eric Poor as the March Hare and White Rabbit. Photo credit: Raleigh Dance Photography

The curtain opened on Alice (Lila Bauer) wandering through her parents’ backyard among butterflies and bumblebees. She loses track of her dear pet cat and goes wandering off to look for it. Along the way, she gets lost and runs into a White Rabbit (Eric Poor). From his first entrance onstage, audience members fell right in love with Poor’s interpretation of the anxious rabbit. Standing ovation-worthy jumps and facial expressions squinted to perfection completed the character along with an exquisitely detailed costume topped with long fuzzy ears, striped puffy sleeves, and a large pink bowtie designed by Don Cantwell, Travis Halsey, Claudia Folts, Lynn Dee Bollesen, Jennifer Mizelle, and Stevi Kovalik. An intrigued Alice befriends the White Rabbit and follows him down the infamous rabbit hole into Wonderland. As someone who entered the theater with the privilege of already knowing the story, I knew what was going on. However, there was no indication to those who did not already know the story. The two characters simply ran offstage and re-entered in a new setting (Wonderland). Ineffective storytelling due to minimal set design and lighting in some scenes would seem to be a theme throughout the show.

A whimsical backdrop of mushrooms, tall flowers, and stone steps fell on Alice meeting the Caterpillar (Isabella Patchell) and her flowers. It was the perfect way to introduce Wonderland with colorful, yet oddly shaped costumes and a somewhat eerie, yet entrancing dance. We are then introduced to Tweedle Dee (Samson Arthur) and Tweedle Dum (Gabe Johnson) as well as the Cheshire Cat (Amelia Wu). Arthur and Johnson arguably stole the show with their goofy personalities and clever presentation of partnered choreography, while Wu showed off graceful technique in a long fluffy tail and cat mask, but didn’t stand out from her character counterparts.

The moment that most viewers get excited about is the Mad Hatter’s (Sergio Suarez) tea party. Here, my expectations were set high and unfortunately were not met. The party fell flat because other than a long white table with chairs and a couple of plastic cups, there were no props to indicate that this scene was a tea party. A simple tea set, or even just a teapot, would have made a world of difference. Suarez effortlessly portrayed the crazy tea-obsessed hatter with dizzyingly perfect fouette turns while his sidekicks, the March Hare (Santino Benjamin Herrera) and the Dormouse (Juliette Mathews), matched the hatter’s energy – the three made an entertaining tea-drunken trio. The dancers performed wonderfully with what they were given to tell the story.

A group of dancers in colorful costumes

Cary Ballet’s colorful Wonderland ensemble (Blaise Houchin, Sarah Lehtinen, Isabella Patchell, Lila Bauer, Sergio Suarez, Santino Herrera, Samson Arthur, Gabe Johnson, Ameila Wu, and Eric Poor). Photo credit: Raleigh Dance Photography

Act II takes us into the palace of the Queen of Hearts (Sarah Lehtinen) and the King of Hearts (Blaise Houchin). Even though Lehtinen portrayed the character of an evil tyrant well, I found the duet between the Queen and King to be boring and a tad bit too long. The croquet match with flamingo-head clubs was fun to watch, but was probably quite confusing and hectic for those who did not know the traditional story well. While at the palace, Alice falls in love with the Knave of Hearts (Jadon Branner), which was a nice touch to the traditional story and was a lovely duet between Bauer and Branner of impressive lifts and turns. As the Queen threatens to chop Alice’s head off, she realizes she must return to reality. The finale brought all of the dancers together to return a sleeping Alice back home with her lost cat finally found.

George Balanchine’s Who Cares?

Two dancers posed in an embrace.

Blaise Houchin and HannahJane Case in Who Cares? Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo credit: Raleigh Dance Photography

The Spring Works performance also included Who Cares?, a short program choreographed by George Balanchine and orchestrated by George Gershwin featuring popular songs like “The Man I Love” and “I Got Rhythm.” Balanchine and Gershwin have long partnered together to create some of the most innovative ballets to date.

A solo female dancer posed and wearing pink.

Alexa Lattanze in Who Cares? Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo credit: Raleigh Dance Photography

Based in jazz music with musical theater influence, Who Cares? is a dazzling performance under city lights with jewel-toned costumes. Any Balanchine and Gershwin program is a large feat for pre-professional dancers to take on, but it seemed like no effort to the Cary Ballet dancers who received a standing ovation by the end. The dancers performed like professionals and the program was an overall outstanding performance of professionalism, maturity, and technique from standouts Sachi Oza, HannahJane Case, and Alexa Lattanze. The costumes in hues of purple, pink, blue, red, and black were really quite impressive and shone brightly under the lights, perfectly complementing each dancer in their own unique way.

A male dancer in black mid-leap

Ethan Maas in Who Cares? Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo credit: Raleigh Dance Photography

Although Cary Ballet Company stumbled through Wonderland, they came out the other end successful in the world of Gershwin in a two-hour production of ballet classics and modern reinvention of traditional fables.