Down the Rabbit Hole: Q&A with Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko on the Upcoming Production of Alice in Wonderland

Interview by Moya Tobey 

Ednis Gomez and Yuka Oba. Photo courtesy of Eric Bouwens.

On May 3, the Grand Rapids Ballet kicks off its 2019 production of Alice in Wonderland. Women’s LifeStyle writer Moya Tobey spoke with the Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko about what it’s like to bring to the classic story to the stage. 

Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: Has the Grand Rapids Ballet done Alice in Wonderland before?

James Sofranko: We did it two years ago,  and it was created specifically for the Grand Rapids Ballet by choreographer Brian Enos. I’ve decided to bring it back; it was a success before, and it will be a success again. We had Brian here last week working on all the choreography with the dancers. He is making a few tweaks, and we’re getting some tweaks from the graphic designer, Louis Graney, as well. Graney is an animator who works in Hollywood with Pixar and Disney and all these high profile movies. He created the backdrop, a fully immersive experience. We have the backdrop in white, the floor in white and all the wings hung in white, so the projection pops. The dancers look like their dancing in this immersive world, which is perfect for Alice in Wonderland. When you’re going down the rabbit hole, you’re really going down the rabbit hole. 

WLM: What was it like turning this Lewis Carroll classic into a ballet production?

JS: I’ve always thought Alice in Wonderland is ripe for dancing because it is so magical and whimsical and fun. There are a lot of opportunities to be whacky.  For our company, which does a lot of contemporary work as well as traditional classical ballet, it made a good fit.  There women in pointe shoes, there are women not in point shoes. There is rolling on the floor, they do a lot of crazy partnering lifts and the costumes are funny, too. There is a lot of humor in this; there’s a lot of unexpected choreography, which is fun in my opinion.

James Sofranko

WLM: What is your favorite scene?

JS: Probably the Mad Hatter scene with the dormouse who keeps falling asleep. That was pure choreographic genius the way Brian made the dormouse keep falling asleep — falling then getting lifted up and around. 

WLM: Have there been any changes from the first production?

JS: Just a couple tweaks, nothing too major. We toned down some of the projections on the floor so you can see the dancers. It was a little bit too busy at certain moments. Brian made a couple of other edits choreographically. He’s really open and flexible and great saying, “It doesn’t have to be the same way as before.” 

WLM: What can the audience expect from the performance?

JS:  I think it’s a great show for everyone — kids and adults alike. Kids will be entertained because it’s very colorful and a lot of action, there’s a lot of stuff happening. It rolls very quickly from one scene to the next so you can expect a good time in that way. You can expect a lot of great dancing, a lot of fun musical choices. The music runs the gambit from a classical symphony by Prokovief to songs by Kurt Weill and Alfred Schnittke, more contemporary composers. It kind of goes all over the place — kind of like the story, which I think is fun. Just expect a good fun time at the ballet and expect to see some good dancing because these dancers are just blowing it out of the water.

WLM: What is different about the creative process when adapting a story into a ballet versus creating an original piece?

JS: You have more freedom when you’re making up the story, but it can also be hindering when there are so many options. You can almost get stuck in the crossroads and not know which way to choose; but, if you already have a book to go from and an outline, you’re being driven in a direction no matter what. That kind of makes it easier in my opinion, but the creative process is the same. There is no outline for what the steps will be, just for what the story will be. How do you portray a caterpillar through movement or the Chesire cat through movement? Brian did a great job imagining everything. I think there is a lot of clarity in the essence of these characters. None of them dance the same so it’s really clear who is who. I think it’s a lot of fun to watch. 

WLM: What has been the most rewarding part of preparing for this production?

JS: To see Brian here, and he’s very pleased with how everyone is doing and looking. He’s excited to see people have new roles. We had some kids here the other day for our Escape to the Ballet Program. They go to the costume shop, they do a little dance class, then they come to watch some rehearsal. It’s fun to see this ballet, which is great for kids, through the eyes of these children. We’re looking at it as professionals, but when you sit back and watch these kids watching and laughing at a cartwheel or whatever zany choreography there is, and realize, “Oh yeah, that’s what’s important here.”  Ballet is a pure expression of joy and fun, and I think seeing things through kids eyes is really rewarding for me. 

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