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Alice promises to charm you with wonder.

Summary: The day-after-Christmas audience at Theatre Monnot squealed with delight Friday evening as a pair of mouse-eared 9-year-olds dropped to the stage in synchronized sets of splits.

BEIRUT: The day-after-Christmas audience at Theatre Monnot squealed with delight Friday evening as a pair of mouse-eared 9-year-olds dropped to the stage in synchronized sets of splits.

It was one of many charming moments in an entertaining dance adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland," one of eight performances staged as part of the Beirut Dance Project's annual fundraising series.

Against the backdrop of video projections of swinging keys and cats with Cheshire grins, the young performers of BDP whirled and twirled across the boards for an hour and a half, accompanied by five professional dancers as they explored Alice's mysterious world.

Dancer-choreographer Nada Kano has been a force on the country's dance scene since founding Beirut Dance Studio eight years ago. In 2009 she created Beirut Dance Project, a platform where disadvantaged children can train to become professional dancers.

Since then, the Project's dance classes have been augmented with scholarships, transportation, outfits and the like, allowing over 190 children from deprived areas in Beirut to benefit from BDP's curriculum in various ways. At the same time, the Project has created an incubator for promising Lebanese talent, and thus the country's wider dance scene.

In recent years, Kano has choreographed an eclectic array of celebrated shows, such as "The Dress," "Borderline" and "Beauty and the Beast." The last of these -- which saw aspiring performers dance alongside professionals from the Beirut Dance Company -- generated enough box office to fund a second wave of BDP recruitment, carried out in collaboration with charity organizations.

"I was looking for some change this time," Kano told The Daily Star, explaining the decision behind this year's show.

"Rather than having the same story of the prince and the princess, I wanted to go for something a little crazier. You can do whatever you want with 'Alice in Wonderland.'"

A group of 20 ballet dancers, comprised of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 15, weave their movement into the 19th-century tale, transporting the audience down the rabbit hole to encounter evil queens, Mad Hatters and the like.

Marked by bright colors and quick scene changes, the performance features over 60 costumes (designed by Patrick Farah), so there is no shortage of adorable fairies, exquisite flamingos and hilarious caterpillars.

It's not just about charming 9-year-olds in mouse ears, of course. "Alice" offers spectators a showcase to admire the youngsters' talent, as well as the discipline and grace with which they carry themselves on stage.

These skills are the fruit of years of rigorous daily training, held as part of the BDP's after-school curriculum. The training is geared to grooming promising students for a career in dance.

The greatest challenge they face, Kano says, is their starting from scratch. "The type of long-term work we are doing is very difficult, especially with school and everything else," Kano said.

"The students and their whole families feel its weight. When they first come in, they have no idea what the dance world is or what it takes, but they learn with time."

The Beirut Dance Project is about more than simply teaching its participants how to thrive professionally, Kano says. It also provides a means for poor kids to channel their talent into confident self-expression, with the aim of arming them to face the daily challenges of poverty.

"It's hard to do this in Lebanon, where the culture of dance is not so common or understood by everyone," Kano explained. "Sometimes I feel the parents or students are not on the same page with me because this is completely new and foreign. But I think they're happy with what we're doing."

For the veteran choreographer, the value of the Beirut Dance Project lies in breaking through the barriers impeding access to professional dance, which she believes is the most underdeveloped of the arts in Lebanon. "It's absurd that we barely have any professional dancers in the country," she said, adding that initiatives like the BDP are necessary to extend creative opportunities to people from diverse backgrounds.

"Art shouldn't be restricted to the financially well-off or to the elite in very small circles," Kano continued. "Dance is an expensive art that requires a big budget when you train professionally --- with the classes, the outfits, and the shoes -- so not everyone can pay.

"I believe whoever has the talent and the passion should be able to dance," she added.

Beirut Dance Project's final performance of "Alice in Wonderland" will be staged at Theatre Monnot Monday at 7:30 p.m.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Dec 29, 2014
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