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Elegant. Fancy. Refined.

Those words often come to mind when thinking about ballet. And, although one can't deny the elegance and beauty of the dancing in the Milwaukee Ballet's upcoming production of ALICE (in Wonderland), 10-year-old dancer Isabella Tremarello's words reflect what this production is above all else – fun:

“My favorite part is the costumes. And I get to do a cartwheel in a giant card costume!”

ALICE, which is based on the well-known and well-loved 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass' by Lewis Carroll, premiered at the Washington Ballet in 2012. It evokes much of the whimsy and nonsense of the books, as Alice has humorous dances with characters as varied as pigs, doors, a key, and a flock of flamingos.

Milwaukee's production, which runs May 19-22, compliments the childlike feel of the ballet by including 104 child dancers - all of whom are members of the Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy.

And these kids aren't just token cuties. Although their dances and costumes are adorable and brought smiles to the faces of observers in the packed studio on National Avenue at Thursday's dress rehearsal, the child dancers have skills that are born of talent and hard work.

Isabella, who plays a baby flamingo and playing card, said she had to audition to land her parts.

“I auditioned and got picked to be a sandwich card. Then some of the baby flamingos dropped out, so I got picked for that too because I'm a good dancer,' she said.

Although the physically demanding ballet requires most of the adult cast to play multiple roles, Milwaukee Ballet's marketing manager, Leslie Rivers, said it's somewhat unusual for the children.

But Isabella, who said she's been dancing since she was three or four, wasn't afraid to take on the extra work. Rivers confirmed Isabella's assertion that she's “been practicing a long time”, pointing out that, in addition to Isabella's regular twice-a-week ballet classes, she has been practicing with the other children in the production on weekends since April.

After months of fine-tuning the choreography and practicing with Academy instructors, Isabella and her classmates joined the professional dancers this past week in dress rehearsals. Isabella, who has performed in the Company's annual Nutcracker three times, said she's usually not nervous about performing in front of audiences because she's well-prepared.

But she did admit to a small case of nerves about dancing with her professional role models, whom she described as “awesome”.

“Dancing with the adult dancers is kind of scary because I don't want to mess up!” she said.

Rivers reassured Isabella that the kids don't need to worry about dancing with the professionals though.

“The dancers love having the kids in the studio with them. It reminds them of when they were kids,” Rivers said.

And, indeed, the dancers waiting for their time on the floor were a friendly audience when Isabella and seven fellow baby flamingo dancers took the stage with Alice on Thursday, wearing their costumes, fluffy pink body suits with hoods attached to beaks, for the first time. The children showed off their skills, dancing huddled close together, and then popping up and down, looking like the baby birds they meant to portray.

After changing out of her flamingo wear, Isabella, with feathery bits of her costume still clinging to her face and leotard, was flushed but exuberant about her dance.

“We got to hug Alice! That was cool!”, she exclaimed.

The only downside?

“The costume was sweaty. I got very sweaty,” she said, holding up her arms and sighing.

The flamingo costumes, along with the others in the production, were designed by Liz Vandal, who has also designed for Cirque de Soleil. The ballet has a Cirque de Soleil feel to it, with Alice hooked up to a flying harness as she falls down the rabbit hole, and dancers waving large blue scarves to resemble water as Alice is hoisted above dancers' heads to portray swimming in a river of her tears.

Child dancers are also cleverly utilized to give the impression that Alice has grown after eating and drinking the infamous Wonderland treats.

Immediately before her “growing” scene, dancers dressed as doors do a dance with Alice. Then, after drinking the growing portion, the adult dancers are replaced by children, their shorter stature giving the illusion that Alice has grown.

The skill in the children's dancing is a testament to the quality of the ballet school, which is one of the three largest dance schools in the nation and is the only school in the Midwest to be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance.

The school provides several different levels of dance classes, including pre-ballet for the youngest children, a student division with levels one through seven (Isabella is in level three), and even a pre-professional division.

The academy has sent dancers to professional ballet companies throughout the world and has even home-grown a few to dance in the Milwaukee Ballet.

Rivers points out that the purpose of the school is not just to train professional dancers, but also to give high quality dance instruction to anyone who loves to dance.

As for Isabella, who really wants to play Alice or Clara from The Nutcracker someday, she's pretty sure she'll be one of the Milwaukee professionals.

“I want to be a professional dancer when I grow up. They get to do lots of cool stuff,' she said.

If you go

See Isabella and her classmates perform with the Milwaukee Ballet in ALICE (in Wonderland) this weekend at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Performances are Thursday, May 19 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, May 20 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 21 at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 22 at 1:30 p.m. Run time is about two hours.

For tickets, call the Milwaukee Ballet Box office at (414) 902-2103 or the Marcus Center Box Office at (414) 273-7206. To buy tickets online, visit ticketmaster.com. Ticket prices range from $50-$112.

Check out the Milwaukee Ballet's student study guide (pdf), which an help prepare your child to see the show: Guide to ALICE

For more information on the Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, go to milwaukeeballetschool.org.

Amy Schwabe is a Franklin-based freelance writer.

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