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Headed Down the Rabbit Hole

'Alice in Wonderland' director Loui adds choreography and digital technology to classic.


It's not your mother's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" that opens tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in a stage adaptation by UC Irvine's graduate school of drama.

But before she sends her cast of 14 actor-dancers leaping into a forward-looking version that interweaves live theater with computer-generated animation, director Annie Loui begins her adaptation with a fond nod to her mother's "Alice in Wonderland."

The UCI drama professor, a choreographer who specializes in training actors in movement and dance, first encountered Lewis Carroll's 1865 children's classic on a porch swing in Davenport, Iowa. Her mother spent summer nights reading and swaying while Loui and her siblings sat listening beside her.

Loui opens her "Alice" with children at play on a swing. Then they gather around a mother who reads to them from a book.

Suddenly, we're not in Iowa anymore.

Instead, we're in a stage world in which flesh-and-blood actors dodge chess pieces, croquet balls and playing cards created by computer and projected on backdrops and scrims. The Mock Turtle and the Gryphon dance through raindrops that are digital, not liquid, and that famous, fading Cheshire Cat grin is a computer-animated dissolve.

Loui has long been interested in how dancers can interact with animation. In the early 1990s she teamed with a Boston animator, Karen Aqua, to create "Sympathetic Magic," a one-woman (plus 16-millimeter projector) dance sequence that she took on tour.

About two years ago, Loui began making contacts with UCI's engineering school in hopes of finding a high-tech collaborator. John Chi, a master's degree candidate from Fullerton, liked Loui and her ideas and signed on early in 1999.

Chi, now running his own multimedia production company, DigitalQUEST, estimates he has contributed $100,000 worth of design and data-crunching time to the project.

Originally, he had something even more elaborate in mind: smart animations in which a computer would use electronic sensors to gauge how the actors were moving and create its own instantaneous responses. But that would have required more than $500,000 worth of computing equipment he didn't have--so in this "Alice," the animation is in lock-step, and the actors have all the flexibility. Ben Israel, a recent UCI master's graduate in composition, has written and produced a spacey, synthesized score to help create the strange, logic-bending world of "Wonderland."

How does one learn to dance with a computerized raindrop or dodge computerized chess pieces?

By taking more pratfalls than a Ringling Bros. clown, over and over and over. Loui said cast members took turns trying to improvise ways to move with the animations, and whatever looked best stuck.

Loui and Chi say it was imperative not to become intoxicated with technological possibilities at the expense of the story and its essential Lewis Carroll-ness.

For example, when they considered embellishing the Mad Hatter's tea party with flying cups and saucers, Loui decided there was no improving upon what Carroll had put on the page. That scene and several others play as straight, traditional theater.

"The language is far too interesting," Loui said. "Why complicate it? It deserved to be showcased."

The same thinking informs the Turtle and Gryphon's duet in the rain. Chi could have created an elaborate thunderstorm full of visual dazzle, but he and Loui decided that the simplest sort of raindrop animation would be the best support for the dancers.

"I wouldn't want one part to overwhelm the other," Chi said. "I'm not looking for any oohs and aahs [for the animation]. Maybe an ooh and aah for the whole show."

Computer imagery has revolutionized filmmaking. But is it an unwarranted intrusion in the theater, that last bastion of pure, breathing, real-time reality in a media and entertainment world where reality is increasingly virtual?

Loui says she is not aware of any such doubts being raised about her production within UCI's theater department.

"It may be just because I'm self-absorbed, but I'm not hearing it. I think people are merely interested to see what I will do."

Loui is aware, though, that there is debate on the subject. In the late 1980s she was a choreographer with the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, and she recalls alarm there that director Robert Wilson's use of multimedia and dazzling stage lighting was distorting the theater's storytelling mission.

"People were very concerned that all the emphasis was going to the production values."

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