Down The Rabbit Hole

Choreographer Scott Rink joins the growing rank of artists leaving New York and returns home to put on 'Alice in Wonderland'

December 18, 2008|By Karen Houppert | Karen Houppert,Special to The Baltimore Sun

On a dark night, in a dark theater, on a dark stage, an 11-year-old girl is drowning in a sea of white. She languidly flaps her arms in a lazy backstroke as yards and yards of silky, swirling parachute fabric is whipped into tidal waves by a cast of eight circling dancers.

Alice is drowning in her own tears.

Cockeysville Middle School sixth-grader Caroline Cohen, who plays Alice, is the youngest dancer in this troupe earnestly rehearsing danceRINK's version of Alice in Wonderland at the Theatre Project. And clearly, Caroline has fallen into a rabbit hole every bit as odd and charming and disorienting as Lewis Carroll's 1865 classic.

Only here - as choreographer Scott Rink's quirky interpretation unfolds - the juxtaposition of the mundane and the psychedelic gets ratcheted up a notch. An ensemble of 10 dancers moves through Carroll's whack subconscious to the sound of a 1950s radio play narrated by girl-next-door Dinah Shore.

"Well," Shore says matter-of-factly as Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, "after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs!"

And Caroline's Alice is not alarmed as she is passed through the air from dancer to dancer as casually as a football being fumbled, then saved. She is sanguine. She yawns. She is almost dropped as she crowd surfs. She stretches. She plummets through the air. She is rescued by fellow dancers' arms seconds before smashing into the floor. She smiles. She looks around, curious.

Things are getting "curiouser and curiouser" in Baltimore with the recent arrival of New York choreographer Scott Rink. This week, he premieres his new work, Alice in Wonderland, at the Theatre Project and joins the growing ranks of New York artists who have fled the city in search of more hospitable - or at least cheaper - ground.

"It's prohibitively expensive now to create live work in New York," 41-year-old Rink says, explaining that the high cost of rehearsal and performance space is bad enough, but it gets discouraging to work so hard and then have to fight for audiences and reviews. "People of my generation are looking for alternative solutions to that problem."

Rink, who grew up in Ellicott City and attended Towson University before striking out for Manhattan's Juilliard School in the '80s, moved back to the area in March.

He sees Baltimore as fertile ground for his 12-year-old company danceRINK. "The idea is that I bring in my collaborators that I've worked with over the years to create new works in Baltimore and then bring them to New York that way," he says.

Rink, who also makes dance films, has brought in several New York-based collaborators for this show: costume designer Tracy Christensen, lighting designer Jason Lyons and set designer David Berube. But he has also drawn on the talents of local performers by casting dancers who are all from the Baltimore-Washington area, as well as Baltimore-based set designer Daniel Ettinger.

Although he hopes to move the piece to New York City eventually, in creating it, he relied heavily on these local dancers.

"I try to cast appropriately, but in the end I'm choreographing for the person in front of me, trying to make them look the best they can and serve my purpose for the time and moment of choreography that I'm envisioning," he says. "I had a very clear idea of what I wanted from the people I hired, and a clear idea of where the piece was going and what I needed to accomplish. At each moment, I felt confident I could do that with the people I cast here."

Rink, whose commissioned works include dances for Ailey II, American Ballet Theatre II, the Oakland Ballet, Minnesota Dance Theatre and Harvard University, describes a very specific sensibility when it comes to works he creates for danceRINK.

He is drawn to narratives, in particular radio plays, which dancers perform - teasing out bits of the musical score that play against the obvious action of the plot and lacing them with more conventional interpretations of the character's role.

"I really like the vintage feel and retro sound of 1950s radio plays," Rink says, explaining the impetus behind this Alice in Wonderland. "It has such a period sound, even the deterioration of the recording becomes part of it. There is a lot I can work with, not only the rhythm of the text, but the music for the underscoring."

Rink says he also takes the original recording and alters it. "With this adaptation, I've taken some of the text out and inserted more musical interludes by a composer from the same period, Raymond Scott."

Carl Stalling, of Looney Tunes fame, adapted much of Scott's music for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, etc. This means Rink's work likely resonates as much with the adults in the audience who hear the riffs they grew up with as with the kids who may be entering Alice's wonderland for the first time.

Indeed, Caroline Cohen had never read Carroll's classic when she auditioned for the part of Alice.

Caroline, who has been dancing since she was 3 years old, takes tap, jazz, ballet and Pointe at the Moving Company Dance Studio with Dana Martin, the teacher Rink once studied with. She is busy but, according to her father, who attends every rehearsal and shuttles her to dance classes daily, it's all just a great way to stay in shape for lacrosse, which Caroline plays.

"I finally got a chance to read the book Alice in Wonderland last weekend," Caroline says. The same look she wears as a puzzled-but-curious Alice crosses her face. "It was good," she says, slightly surprised.

IF YOU GO

DanceRINK performs Alice in Wonderland at

8 p.m. today and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors and artists and $10 for students and are available by calling the box office at 410-752-8558 or going to missiontix.com. Go to theatreproject.org or www.dancerink.com .

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