It Took More Than Magical Ruby Pointe Shoes To Bring A ‘Wizard Of Oz’ Ballet To Life

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Photo: Colorado Ballet Wizard Of Oz 1
Colorado Ballet dancer Asuka Sasaki and Toto puppeteer Benjamin Rose, with artists of Colorado Ballet in the background, in rehearsal on Jan. 25, 2019.

A ballet adaption of “The Wizard of Oz” is something choreographer Septime Webre has dreamed about for a long time.

“In some ways this ballet has been incubating since I was 12-years-old,” Webre said.

Webre, who is the artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, grew up with the L. Frank Baum novel about the Kansas girl Dorothy and her journey through the whimsical world of Oz.

During a family vacation to Mexico, he and his siblings put together an “outrageously spectacular for a 12-year-old kid” version of “The Wizard of Oz” with marionette puppets. The Webres toured it to nursing homes and church basements.

Webre’s vision has transformed from marionette puppets to ruby-red pointe shoes. His ballet take on the classic comes to Denver on Friday, when the Colorado Ballet presents “The Wizard of Oz” at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House for a two-weekend run.

When Webre was in Denver several years ago to stage his “Alice and Wonderland” on Colorado Ballet, he approached artistic director Gil Boggs about the Oz idea that had excited him for so long. Soon after, the two looked for other professional ballet companies to commission the work with. They found their collaborators in the Kansas City Ballet and Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

When creating the ballet, Webre choreographed different sections and dances with different companies.

“It was really important for me that the DNA of each company be in the ballet, everyone leave their fingerprint,” Webre said. “And I, as a choreographer, am really influenced by the dancers I’m choreographing on.”

He workshopped the first half of Act I, including much of Munchkin Land, with the dancers of the Colorado Ballet. He then went to Winnipeg to work with the company there, and finished up the ballet with the Kansas City Ballet.

The ballet has elements from both the book and the 1939 film starring Judy Garland. It required special licensing agreements with Warner Bros. to borrow any of the film’s distinct imagery. But Webre felt it was a “no-brainer” to have Dorothy dance in the movie’s ruby-colored slippers — in the book, her magical shoes are silver.

“They’re so iconic and the color red is so strong onstage,” Webre said.

He also wanted to leave his own mark on “The Wizard of Oz.”

“When an artist tackles a remake of a great work of art, the only reason to do it is to add something,” Webre said.

Those additional somethings add up to a lot of onstage spectacle. The creators conjured up a whirling tornado complete with a flying Dorothy and Mrs. Gulch. Toto and the flying monkeys are elaborate puppets designed by Nicholas Mahon, who also created the puppets for the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in PyeongChang.

Matthew Pierce, who has worked with Webre on a number of other ballets, composed the original score for the ballet and infused some “disco funk” into the music for the Emerald City scenes.

And the costumes, designed by Liz Vandal, are as colorful as they are plentiful. In fact, Boggs said his “wardrobe mistress reminds me everyday” that they had to dye about 270 dance shoes for the production.

Colorado Ballet managing director Mark Chase said they created a limited liability company to handle the business side of the co-commission, “so there’d be a single entity that dealt with each of the designers.” Each dance company contributed to the LLC and funds were distributed from there.

It can cost millions of dollars to create a new ballet like “The Wizard of Oz”. Sharing those expenses with two other companies made financial sense. And there’s the potential for future revenue from rental and licensing fees if other dance companies want to mount the production, Chase said.

“The Wizard of Oz” has already broken a record for the Colorado Ballet. As of Friday afternoon, it exceeded the projected ticket sales goal. With many shows already sold out, Colorado Ballet reported $1 million in ticket sales for “The Wizard of Oz.” That makes it the “highest selling, non-Nutcracker production” in the dance company’s history, according to a Colorado Ballet spokesperson.

Photo: Colorado Ballet Wizard Of Oz 2
Asuka Sasaki and Kevin Gaël Thomas rehearse the Emerald City scene at Colorado Ballet’s studios on Jan. 25, 2019.

Boggs thinks it’s done well because it has broad appeal.

“It’s like a ‘Nutcracker.’ People who come to that aren’t necessarily balletomanes. It’s a family and holiday tradition,” he said. “So when you see something like a ‘Wizard of Oz,’ you know that the family can go and enjoy that.”

That’s a great financial incentive for Colorado Ballet, but it’s not the only allure to the company.

“From an artistic standpoint, just to be able to collaborate with three other companies and to be able to put something like this together, it does wonders for our national reputation,” Boggs said, adding that he sees the company doing more of these co-commissions in the future.

Webre also focuses on the intangibles.

“I hope audiences come away with an exuberant feeling about how adventuresome life is, and I hope they leave appreciating the power, athleticism and artistry of the artists performing,” he said.

Colorado Ballet presents “The Wizard of Oz” Feb. 1 - 10, 2019 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.