Nearly 80 years after the iconic film The Wizard of Oz was released, choreographer Septime Webre has created a fantastical ballet based on the cherished story that is both familiar and unlike any other.
The $1-million-plus joint production between Colorado Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Kansas City Ballet, who premiered it in October at Missouri’s magnificent Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, was visually akin to a Cirque du Soleil spectacular, with stunning scenic design by Michael Raiford, glitzy costumes by Liz Vandal and spot-on atmospheric lighting by Trad A. Burns. Loaded with adroitly performed high-energy dancing, humour and top-notch special effects, the production has all the makings for box-office gold.
Webre, the artistic director of Hong Kong Ballet, based the two-act ballet on Book 1 of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series as well as the film. As with many of his story ballets, including the critically acclaimed Alice (in wonderland), Webre added a host of new characters to advance the story and create more dancing roles.
The original score by Obie Award-winning composer-violinist Matthew Pierce, performed live by the Kansas City Symphony, was perhaps the largest hurdle to acceptance in this version of Oz — you couldn’t help but miss the famous songs from the film. Stylistically, Pierce’s music hop-scotched about from Philip Glass minimalism to full-on sweeping orchestral drama, but always seemed to capture the mood of each scene.
The opening of the ballet on Raiford’s skewed-perspective Kansas farm scene — evocative of Missouri regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings — was the first volley in an explosion of eye-popping visuals that would come to define the production. Here we were introduced to the main characters: Dorothy, danced by effervescent Lilliana Hagerman, who stole hearts with her unbound hopefulness; Elysa Hotchkiss as the spiteful Miss Gulch and later the deliciously devilish Wicked Witch of the West; Liang Fu as Professor Marvel/the Wizard of Oz; and Taryn Mejia as Aunt Em and the benevolent Glinda.
Three farm hands were also part of that homespun scene, men who would later become the Scarecrow (Cameron Thomas), Tin Man (Dillon Malinski) and Lion (Humberto Rivera Blanco). The lifelike, scene-stealing Toto — Dorothy’s beloved dog — appeared in the form of a puppet controlled onstage by Jeremy Hanson costumed as a farm hand.
The ballet briskly moved through familiar scenes from the film, including Dorothy’s encounters with Miss Gulch and Professor Marvel before being swept up by an animated tornado projected on a backdrop screen. Into the tornado’s vortex flew the passing images of cows, farm implements and Miss Gulch, who flew midair across the stage atop her bicycle.
Flying sequences were prevalent throughout the production for many of the characters. Also in heavy use in Webre’s multi-styled choreography, which was disappointingly lean on substantive dancing, were an awkward array of acrobatic partnered lifts, many involving Hagerman, who was often foisted upside down in the air.
Landing in Oz (noticeably without any reference to squashing the Wicked Witch of the East), Dorothy was greeted by Glinda, the Munchkins and a slew of other characters, with children from the Kansas City Ballet School appearing as a swarm of Grasshoppers. Through a bit of stage magic, the ruby slippers suddenly appeared on Dorothy’s feet and her memorable journey down the yellow brick road began.
One of the more unique character additions were the Yellow Brick Roadies — dancers costumed as pieces of the road — who were also used to drive some of the ballet’s action and interacted with the main characters, including an apple passing dance in the Haunted Forest.
Webre infused the production with more than a few pop culture references. The Emerald City’s gatekeeper had an Austin Powers-like “mini-me” assistant and the Emerald City itself resembled a discotheque, where Dorothy and the gang did the popular Floss (or Washing Machine) dance seen everywhere these days on YouTube and social media. While kitschy in places, Webre’s allusions to pop culture as well as other ballets (such as La Bayadère’s Kingdom of the Shades opening scene), all seemed to work as the multi-generational audience at the matinée performance I saw ate it up.
In a ballet with few serious dance moments, the finest came in a brief but lovely classical pas de deux in the second act between Mejia as the Emerald Ballerina and partner James Kirby Rogers as the Emerald Officer, which was a delicate oasis in a ballet full of non-stop action.
Choreographically more on the level of The Nutcracker than Swan Lake, in the end, Webre and Kansas City Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz hit home where it counted, delivering the Oz story as most of us know it and in visually grand fashion.
Colorado Ballet danced Oz in February and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet will have their turn in May.
— STEVE SUCATO
DI SPRING 2019