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Portland Festival Ballet premieres its new ballet, 'Alice in Wonderland'

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Zoe Abadi rehearses for her role as a royal card in the upcoming production of 'Alice in Wonderland.' Alice and the White Rabbit hop across the floor. To an untrained eye, their playful dance seems complete. Sure, practice makes perfect, but it appears they’re already there.

John Magnus, Portland Festival Ballet’s artistic director, stops the music to indicate he would like the dancers to stop, as well. Alice (Jenna Harrison) and the Rabbit (Josh Schwartz), wait patiently while he organizes his thoughts.

Magnus purses his lips. For several seconds, he stands with his chin in his hand before performing the dancers’ motions in miniature. He stops when he reaches a trouble spot to demonstrate the change he wants and talks it through. His motions get bigger, and the dancers join until Magnus falls back to direct from afar.

“To see your students do well, that’s our goal as teachers. Sometimes you’ve got to be very hard on them because, as human beings, we are inclined to be very lazy and coast,” he said. “You just need to give them a little push...they rise to the occasion no matter.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - South African John Magnus is the artistic director of Portland Festival Ballet's production of 'Alice in Wonderland.'

In this spring’s two-part performance, the guidance of the school’s faculty is clear. The first half of the show, “Alice in Wonderland,” has all original choreography created by Magnus, for the children to showcase their hard work. The second half, which features a classical ballet, improvisation, modern and student-created choreography, is the time for the trainees to excel.

“You want to keep things challenging but within their reach,” Magnus said.

For this reason, when he has an idea for something like “Alice,” it stays a loose vision until he actually gets it in front of the students. Adjustments and tweaks are a natural part of the process. Magnus wants to challenge the students and make them the best they can be without actually pushing them beyond what they can realistically achieve. The goal isn’t just to craft a beautiful show, but to also create a show the students are confident performing.

“This year’s show isn’t like anything we’ve ever done before, so I’m very excited to perform in it,” said Megan McGarry, a 15-year-old pre-professional trainee with the company who plays the Door Mouse in “Alice.”

The show isn’t just about the dance. It’s the costumes, the lights, the backdrops, the characters, the music. No one thing brings it to life, said Magnus, who carefully considered all aspects when envisioning what the show would be. Of course, he said, music came first. Music always comes first. He needed to find music to tell the story and to tell it right. Something to match the quirkiness that compelled him to bring “Alice” to life in the first place. In the end, he compiled pieces by French composers including Claude Debussy and Earnest Chausson.

“It takes hours and hours of listening to music, but that’s the fun part. That’s the creativity,” Magnus said. “I was thinking, ‘Well, what are we going to do this year?’ We had some ideas. ‘Snow White,’ ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Pinocchio.’ And then I was listening to music, and the music kind of came to me. I said, ‘Oh, how would Alice in Wonderland be?’”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Aaron Hampton plays the Dodo in the upcoming production of 'Alice in Wonderland.'

Just as the choreography must match the music, the students’ characters must match the choreography. It’s for reasons like this that acting and improv are incorporated into their learning. Dancers don’t get to use words, so they must emote from within. Several times during rehearsals for the show’s second half, Magnus reminded the students of what they needed to do.

“Dance from your heart, not just physically,” he said to the trainees. “This is a happy ballet, people, a happy ballet.”

Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, Magnus joined Beaverton-based Portland Festival Ballet in 2009 after a professional dance career with Cape Town City Ballet and 23 years teaching for the Joffrey School of Ballet in New York. When he joined PFB, its organizers, including Executive Director Thelma Clark, desperately wanted a professional program. Magnus wanted to create one.

“If you have a great technique, the door will be open for you to be seen,” said Clark. “We’re just trying to prep them and to guide them.”

For a time, there was resistance. Both the students and parents had a difficult time transitioning into what training for a professional program actually meant — dedication, focus, drive.

Today at Portland Festival Ballet, many of the dancers hope to advance to professional careers. Especially the trainees, who range in age from 12 to mid-20s, can’t see themselves doing anything else. Dance is full-time for these students, taking the place of regular school and jobs. It has to be this way. There’s too much to learn, and competition is too fierce to take time off.

“Ballet is very disciplined (and) you need a certain work ethic,” Magnus said. “There’s no disrespect for the art form. You can’t be talking or yawning or sitting down. Even the little ones. We’re very strict with them, but in a kind way. There’s always a reason why we’re demanding.

“In the end, it’s very rewarding. It’s so fulfilling. You can see the kids, they really get something out of it.”

During rehearsal, as Magnus contemplates the effect of a head tilt during the trainees’w performance — too much seems like a caricature, not enough seems robotic — the students wait with rapt attention. Even the smallest detail can make a performance, and they are dedicated to every single one.by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Megan Gordon stays loose during a rehearsal of 'Alice in Wonderland.'

Catch the ballet

“Alice in Wonderland” is being performed in Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave., on Saturday, May 10, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., with a special preview on Friday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $32 for adults, $28 for seniors and students, and $25 for youth. For tickets, go to pdx.edu/boxoffice/tickets or call 503-725-3307. For more information, visit portlandfestivalballet.org.by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Kate Turner and Kaylei Hampton get into their roles as the Parrot and French Mouse for the upcoming production of 'Alice in Wonderland.'

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