Joe Pagac will use a paint and brush to usher Alice into Wonderland in this weekend's multimedia dance concert I Wonder If My Name Is Alice. The concert "starts out with a black-and-white set," explains Pagac, well known around town for his outdoor murals on the Rialto Theatre and at Bookmans. "Then as Alice goes into Wonderland I start painting in colors."
Appearing live onstage at UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, Pagac will first paint a rabbit hole that a grown-up Alice—danced by Claire Hancock—will use to escape her dreary life.
Once in Wonderland, after Pagac has painted the Mad Hatter or Tweedledum or Tweedledee on a piece of scenery, the real-life dancers of Artifact Dance Project will emerge in living color.
"They come to life," Pagac says.
The artist has done plenty of live painting before for an audience—including at the John Hodgman comedy show at the Rialto a year ago—and "when I do murals on the street, people watch."
But this is the first time he's wielded his brush in a ballet.
"I've never looked at ballet at all or watched it," he confesses. "But what the dancers are doing is tremendously impressive."
After being in rehearsal with the troupe over the last weeks, he's in awe not only of the dancers' leaps and turns, but also of their endurance. In a concert lasting two hours, Hancock dances nearly nonstop.
"She's onstage the whole time," he notes. "This is going to be a really great show."
Hancock's Alice is an unhappy young woman who works as a waitress in a dreary black-and-white diner. Among the diner denizens she has to contend with are her boss, the maître d' and a pair of annoying customers—a couple who later metamorphose into Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
"There's a sadness to it," says Hancock, co-artistic director and co-founder of Artifact Dance Project. "She's daydreaming. She wants to escape"—back to the magical Wonderland she remembers from her favorite childhood book.
Pagac plays a painter who uses his own magic to get her there.
"He's a mystery character," Hancock explains. As a kind of stand-in for Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "Joe's character is godlike; he freezes time. He's onstage throughout Act 2, moving things around. He's a power and a force."
Like all of the projects undertaken by Artifact Dance Project, I Wonder If My Name Is Alice is a cornucopia of artistic collaborations. Wet paint is a brand-new medium for the troupe, but Alice has the company's usual mix of dance, film and live music.
Ashley Bowman, Hancock's fellow co-artistic director and co-founder of ADP, conceived the work and choreographed all the dances. ("This is her baby," Hancock says, "her brainchild.") She doesn't dance in the show, leaving that task to Hancock and the eight other dancers.
"It's a full-length ballet," Hancock says, and despite the Act 1 switch to modern-day reality, "it reads like a fairy-tale ballet. But the movement is contemporary ballet. There's no pointe work."
The troupe is committed to performing a literary work each year. Past projects resuscitated tales by Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm. Last summer, on ADP's second whirlwind tour of China, the two artistic directors started considering a subject for this season's literary concert.
"We were in China on a train talking," Hancock says. The women discovered that they both remembered Alice fondly not only from the 1865 novel, but from the various movie and TV adaptations. "Ashley and I both grew up with the story, and we almost immediately decided on Alice for the show."
ADP has live music at every concert, no exceptions, and Benjamin Nisbet, a Tucson Symphony Orchestra violinist and Bowman's husband, serves as company musical director. For Alice, Nisbet leads his Kingfisher String Quartet and guest pianist Alexander Tentser through a program of Ravel, Prokofiev, Mozart, Liszt, Debussy and Bach.
The five musicians will also play "The Gate," a brand-new piece by composer Robert McClure that balances strings and electronics.
The brilliantly colored costumes—matching the ratcheted-up tones in Pagac's paintings — were designed and crafted by Bowman and her mother, Charlene Hock. The dancers turn from restaurant workers and patrons in Act 1 to the half-mad Wonderland characters of Act 2, dressing in fantastical costumes to conjure the White Rabbit (Nolan Kubota), the Cheshire Cat (Shelly Steirgarwald), the Caterpillar (Angie Lin-Hannum), the Mad Hatter (Cory Gram) and the Queen of Hearts (Jeff Bacigulapo).
Only Alice stays staid, wearing the familiar blue dress and white pinafore. Sara Blanchard, a young student of Bowman's at Tucson Dance Academy, briefly portrays Alice as a young girl. As the principal Alice, Hancock gets "to do a lot of acting and dancing. It's fulfilling for me as a performer," she says.
Painter Pagac wears, not surprisingly, a standard commercial painter's white jumpsuit. He says he's never before played a character while slinging his paints onstage.
"I did some theater in high school," he says with a smile, "but I'm comfortable onstage if I'm prepared.
Pagac has been painting for pay since he graduated from the UA in 2004. "To make it as an artist, I did anything I could as long as I was painting for a living." After spending five years doing murals in private homes, he branched out into his personal paintings and public murals and arts performances, the work, he says, that's "in my heart."
In rehearsals for Alice, he learned that he has to paint faster than he ever has before, in synchrony with the dances and music. He'll start to paint "at 2 1/2 minutes into a dance, and have it done by the end, maybe 4 1/2 minutes."
He uses acrylic house paints, which wash easily and dry readily. But after each rehearsal—and after every show—he has to cover up the painted images with white paint, transforming the set back to a blank canvas ready for the next performance. The paint, of course, has to dry before the dancers return to the stage, and he's found that the local climate is on his side in this effort.
"The good thing is, Tucson is extremely dry," he says.
Pagac made some of the set himself, trying "to build it in such a way that the paint is tucked in" - and not liable to spill onto Stevie Eller's floor or stain any costumes or dancers.
"My goal," he says deadpan, "is not to get any paint on anyone."