Two enchanting classics — "Robin Hood" and "Alice in Wonderland"

Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo and Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo put their own spins on old tales

slinn@thetribunenews.comApril 3, 2013 

One weekend. Two dance companies. Two dramatically different shows.

Starting on Saturday, Central Coast audiences have their choice of big-budget dance bonanzas — both featuring familiar fairy-tale characters that have seeped into our collective unconscious.

Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo is presenting a stripped-down, yet spectacular, take on “Alice in Wonderland,” which originally premiered in 2003. Meanwhile, Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo is offering a revamped, ramped-up version of “Robin Hood,” which debuted in 2009.

Below, we take a closer look at both productions.

"Alice in Wonderland"

Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo Artistic Director Drew Silvaggio isn’t the first in his family to bring “Alice in Wonderland” to the stage. His mother, company founder Lori Silvaggio, first staged a production in 1987.

While his mom based her production on Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Drew Silvaggio decided to adapt Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” about a naïve yet courageous young girl who journeys to a magical world.

“I set out to tell the story in a way I would enjoy watching it,” said Silvaggio, describing the production as a Las Vegas-style “stage spectacular” complete with a White Rabbit (Jenna Lee), a batty Mad Hatter (Holly Hartley), an evil Queen of Hearts (Oksana Moscoso) and a hookah-smoking Caterpillar (Harmony True).

At the story’s heart is smart, stubborn Alice, played by Amber Lum and Jane Selna.

“Everybody wants something from her,” explained guest choreographer Ryan Lawrence. “She’s trying to find her own identity in the world that’s in between youth and adulthood.”

The resulting coming-of age story, paired with a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, rings true with audiences of all ages, he said.

“After the first time (we) performed this (in 2003), I had a lot of people say, ‘Thank you for doing this. I hate going to ballets.’ I would say, ‘Great, because I made this for you,’ ” recalled Silvaggio, who brought back the full-length “Alice” in 2005 and premiered a stripped-down version last spring.

This year, “Alice” is paired with Lawrence’s piece about loss, “Mourn.”

“Loss has shaped me a lot whether it be death or loss of a relationship or loss of an idea or loss of my youth,” explained Lawrence, a San Luis Obispo native and Julliard School graduate who performed with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Lar Lubovich Dance Company in New York. He spent eight years dancing in the Netherlands before returning to the Central Coast eight months ago with his family.

His wife, Maartje Lawrence-Hermans, will dance the lead role in “Mourn.”

The piece explores different cultural approaches to mourning — ranging from the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva” after burial to New Orleans “jazz funerals.”

“A jazz funeral … starts with a dirge, and is solemn and introspective, and then all of a sudden, it’s like ‘Let’s do it. Let’s party,’ ” Lawrence said. “It’s truly a celebration of life through extreme living.”

“Mourn” also addresses the ages-old practice of professional mourners, which continues today in China, India and elsewhere.

“Whether you’re a paid mourner performing your funeral rite for somebody else, or whether you’re a ballerina performing on stage in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or an actor playing Hamlet … what (you’re) doing is codifying emotions and presenting them to the audience in a way that makes them feel safe,” Lawrence said.

"Robin Hood"

A lot of research went into “Robin Hood,” Theresa Slobodnik’s full-length ballet about the arrow-slinging, sword-swinging outlaw who made his first appearance in English folklore in the early 15th century.

“There’s over 600 years of Robin Hood folklore,” said Slobodnik, founder and artistic director of Ballet Theatre San Luis Obispo. “I selected the stories that I wanted to tell.”

She based her ballet on selections from “The Adventures of Robin Hood” by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Set in England during the Crusades, “Robin Hood” finds Robin (Julian Rossi) and his Merry Men — including Will Scarlett (Mathew Jacobs), Much the Miller (Blair London), Little John (Darren Bridges) and Friar Tuck (Zach Johnson) — facing off against cruel, corrupt Prince John (Bernie Delgado) and his henchmen, Sir Guy of Gisborne (James Van Lommell) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Eric Hoit). Meanwhile, John’s brother, King Richard the Lion-heart (Mark Plater), is rotting in a prison cell overseas.

Robin’s only ally, besides his brothers-in-arms, is courageous noblewoman Marian Fitzwalter (Melissa Rasmussen).

In accordance to the setting, Slobonik modeled her choreography after court and folk dances and set it to English, French and Italian music from the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, as well as selections from “Ancient Airs and Dances” by 19th-century composer Ottorino Respighi.

Slobodnik described “Robin Hood,” which premiered in April 2009, as “the biggest ballet I’ve ever done. It’s so complicated.”

That said, she was eager to revisit the project.

“When you make a huge work like ‘Robin Hood,’ you do hope to present it again,” she said, if only for the opportunity of mining new material. “(Filmmakers) shoot a scene and they have all this footage, but they have the luxury of editing and piecing it together.

“When you’re making a piece for a live audience you don’t have that option.”

Although much of the revised “Robin Hood” shares the same storyline and choreography as the original production, Slobodnik said this version features better defined characters, more detailed period costumes by Nancy Hopkins and more high-energy fight scenes orchestrated by weapons trainer and martial arts expert Tom Meadows.

“There’s swordplay in all three acts,” she said, as well as quarterstaff duels and an archery contest. “It’s a really prop-heavy ballet.”

Although all the changes have enhanced the production, Slobodnik said, the real trick was securing the right cast — twice.

“Robin Hood is such a complex personality,” Slobodnik said. “He has to be humorous. He has to be very strong and noble and sincere, and a very good dancer and a very good partner.”

“Without a Robin Hood, you don’t have a ballet,” she added.

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.


"Alice in Wonderland"
2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
$18 to $29

"‘Robin Hood"
7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$20 to $50


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