A Magical Wizard of Oz ballet

The Ryman Healthcare Season of The Wizard of Oz
Based on the book by L. Frank Baum, choreographed by Francesco Ventriglia
St James Theatre, Wellington
Until May 8 
Then Christchurch May 12-14, Invercargill May 18, Dunedin May 21, Blenheim May 25, Rotorua May 28 – 29, Auckland June 2 – 5, Palmerston North June 9, Napier June 11 – 12.

The new Wizard of Oz ballet which opened this week in Wellington has added a brilliant new work to the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s repertoire. It is a work both for children as well as adults with stunning dancing, elaborate costumes, and a delightful storyline. It is a dance filled with joy, adventure, humour, and spectacle.

This Wizard of Oz was created by ballet artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and originally planned for a performance in Florence in 2010. However, through an accident of fate, the work was never performed and the sets went into storage but the dream of staging it remained with him

Now this two-act ballet of friendship, growing up and achieving one's potential, is having its world premiere in New Zealand

This isn’t the Wizard of Oz most people are familiar with – the film starring Judy Garland; it is a more personal version created by Francesco Ventriglia. He has combined some of the Baum storyline from the original book along with his own personal experience.

As a young child he was in hospital where his mother first read him the book and where he visited a young girl in intensive care but one day she just wasn’t there. These events have coalesced into his dance version.

A mixture of reality and fantasy permeates the ballet in the storyline, the sets, the costumes and the dance. While there is a narrative to the work, it is essentially a series of carefully choreographed vignettes.

In this version, we discover Dorothy in a hospital bed  where she has entered her fevered dream world accompanied by her soft toy, Toto and Glinda, the good Witch of the North. She encounters a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Lion who are all in search of the Emerald City to see the Wizard of Oz who can fix their various problems.

The main characters are all in search of elements that individually will make them more complete and collectively they are on a search for universal fulfillment.

The Lion searches for courage, the Scarecrow for intelligence the Tin Man for a heart and Dorothy for love and maturity.

Lucy Green as Dorothy gave a brilliant performance providing the character with a real sense of growing maturity through her dancing. She seemed to float throughout the ballet and this was not just because of her diminutive size. Her movements had a weightlessness and her limbs a lightness. Her dancing with a number of the other characters saw her lifted, carried, hoisted and spun in elaborate formations and poses.

Loughlan Prior’s Scarecrow was sufficiently floppy, Missimo Margari’s Tin Man creaky enough and Jacob Chown’s Lion doleful enough. They provided some excellent if unusual dance movements that were fresh, witty and idiosyncratic.

The good Witch of the North who holds the story line together acted as a sort of narrator, engaging with new characters that the group meets. She is danced by Abigail Boyle with a series of fluid dances in her fairy-like gown.

One of the more dramatic sequences featured the Witch of the West danced by Mayu Tanigaito with crisp angular movements and a ferocious energy.

She was accompanied by three bare-chested, black-skirted figures who danced like a set of whirling dervishes and seemed to have been lifted from one of Lemi Ponifasio’s works. The drama of this sequence was aided by having the dancers' silhouettes projected as ghostly images on the rear wall.

Another outstanding sequence was in the Kingdom of Porcelain where the dancers performed in a very classical mode, their tutus in severe white or decorated in a blue porcelain design. Even Dorothy when she appeared had a tutu that combined her traditional gingham with a blue porcelain design.

The corps de ballet and Prince (William Fitzgerald) and Princes (Laura Jones) danced with great delicacy and refinement and the Prince also gave a dashing display

Fitzgerald also danced the role of the Wizard and his final appearance with Lucy Green was the nearest sequence to a truly romantic duo combining classical and contemporary modes.  He showed himself able to meet the demands of some challenging lifts and elaborate interplays with Green as well as creating an emotional connection between the two of them.

Much of the ballet is imbued with aspects of surreal Italian movies such as Fellini’s “Otto e Mezzo” with its dreamlike qualities. This was particularly evident in the closing scene where the various characters re-emerge to stroll around Dorothy’s bed, a reference to the closing moments of the Fellini film. Then there are the brightly lit scenes featuring the Munchkins on the beach and the Porcelain Kingdom court.

Ventriglia chose music by Francis Poulenc for the ballet, mainly music which had been used for the ballet Les Biches choreographed by the early 20th-century female choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. The music, which had some Copland-like passages, added to the slightly surreal quality of the dance.

Unfortunately, in many of the sequences the sound engineer had the volume turned up which meant that the emotional impact of the dance was lessened especially in the passages of more delicate dancing.

The sets by Gianluca Falaschi complemented the dance. From the expansive blue sky dotted with clouds background with its Magritte-like surrealism to the pared back baroque set for the Kingdom of Porcelain they provided remarkable spaces, as though the dancers were performing in the enlarged rooms of a child’s dolls house.

His piece de resistance was the get-away vehicle used by the Wizard – a large porcelain cup supported by red balloons that looked like giant Jaffas.

These spaces were given additional atmospheric vibrancy by the lighting design of Jason Morphett, ranging from some brilliantly lit white spaces to spot lit dancers in black spaces

Disclosure: John Daly-Peoples has a relative on the board of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

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