Getting those ruby slippers dancing in Royal Winnipeg’s Wizard of Oz

The Royal Winnipeg's The Wizard of Oz is coming to Ottawa. Pictured are Josh Reynolds, Katie Bonnell, Stephan Azulay, Yosuke Mino. Photo: David Cooper

The Wizard of Oz has been presented in many forms. First as a novel written by L. Frank Baum and published in 1900. In 1902 there was a Broadway musical and in 1939, one of the most watched Hollywood movies of all time featured a young Judy Garland as Dorothy, the girl from Kansas blown into the magical land of Oz by a tornado.

That movie featured an iconic Oscar winning score by Herbert Stothart and the famous song Over the Rainbow which also won an Oscar.

Now there is an ambitious $1.1 million high tech ballet created by choreographer Septime Webre for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Kansas City Ballet and the Colorado Ballet.

The score for the ballet was created by American composer and violinist Matthew Pierce who has been a regular collaborator with Webre. His Oz score is 471 pages long and features lots of percussion including a wind machine. It also features musical influences from mélange of influences creating the joy span the decades including  1920s Big Band, 1950s Cool Jazz, 1970s Glam Rock, late 1970s Disco and 1980s New Wave, he said. The ballet premiered in Kansas City at the end of 2018. The Royal Winnipeg’s version will be at the National Arts Centre from Jan. 23 to Jan. 25.

Matthew Pierce composed the music for The Wizard of Oz ballet. 

Webre and Pierce have done five ballets together.

“We did an earlier project called Alice in Wonderland which has been pretty popular around North America, Europe and Asia especially in Hong Kong” where Webre is the artistic director of Hong Kong Ballet, Pierce told ARTSFILE in an interview.

“I do have a long history in ballet, Pierce said. “My brother, Ben, is a retired principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet and he did his training at the National Ballet of Canada.”

Ballet composition is very much like writing for a musical “without the words. You are basically writing different dance numbers and interstitial music to move the narrative along,” Pierce said.

He said the in-between moments in a ballet can be scored with sound effects, for example, “then you hit a place for a song, just like you say this sounds like a song in a musical. The the same thing happens with a dance, especially with (a story) like The Wizard of Oz which is pretty iconic.”

Given the powerful impression made by the film and its iconic music, did Pierce feel constrained?

“Huge respect obviously to the movie and what that movie did for the story, but what is interesting about the book and the story itself are the characters. That’s why the story resonates so much. We have these characters in our lives.

The Wizard of Oz: Katie Bonnell as Glinda the Good Witch, Yayoi Ban as Dorothy and Sophia Lee as the Wicked Witch of the West. Photo: David Cooper

“If I imagine those people in my life, and as Septime and I imagined those characters, there are lots of ways to interpret the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow and Dorothy and the Wicked Witch.

“There is a lot of wiggle room, in my opinion, exactly because the characters are so iconic.”

In fact, Pierce thinks it was about time to take another look at the story.

“It’s been a while. I think it’s OK to reinterpret some of these characters. Septime and I talked about how to bring them forward in time. He wanted a disco vibe for the Lion for example.”

So in developing this new ballet it was important to be creative with ideas about these characters, he added.

Pierce’s musical training is on classical violin and, he said, he likes the fact that dancers need rhythm and a good melody. “Those are the things that I go for naturally. Melody and a tonal musical language resonates with me. This is how I communicate these characters.”

He studied violin at the Peabody Conservatory. He said he didn’t start writing until he left school.

“My brother’s girlfriend at the time was Julia Adam from Ottawa. My first ballet was for her at the San Francisco Ballet. We did a piece called Night in 2000. I was writing music and sending it to my brother. He would play it and she heard it.”

At the time he was writing music for theatres in New York so the move into dance was pretty easy. “I understand the language of a ballet dancer and what they need” because of his personal connection to his brother.

“You can imagine how many Nutcrackers I’ve seen.”

Josh Reynolds, Katie Bonnell, Stephan Azulay and Yosuke Mino in The Wizard of Oz. Photo: David Cooper

The Nutcracker is a model for Wizard, he added. “In fact it’s a model for everything because it is a road story. Basically you meet the characters and you take a trip. Dorothy comes to Oz on tornado and the same with Alice down the rabbit hole.

In the ballet, Pierce said, “Dorothy is fun because she has a passionate, inner life. That’s the whole Over the Rainbow thing which the movie tapped into. It’s in the book and in the story.”

So he has created what he calls a “beautiful, long, lush, melody that tries to describe the journey and search she is on to find herself.”

Dorothy’s theme comes back quite a bit in the ballet, he said, as do the themes of all the characters.

“It’s the best way to tell a story through music. When you hear somebody’s music you know they are coming back.”

The Scarecrow’s music has an Americana sensibility which could be a nod to Pierce’s great grandfather, Johnny, a farmer who toured depression era Appalachia with his banjo.

“The Tin Man is fun because of the sound effects I used. The squeaky creaky joints were created by scratching on the violin strings and I used a wood block to imitate the sound of an oil can. That turns into a dance. He’s a happy guy. He is also very soulful.

“When you get to Oz it’s like opening a big green disco ball. All that music around me all the time. It’s just a question of bringing it into the concert hall.”

Webre and Pierce, because they have worked on five different ballets together, have a well-travelled process. For Oz, they I talked about the influences in each character. “I’d write a minute of a piece, send it to him and he’d say yes or no.

“I have specific things in my mind about what the dancers are doing. Now I really understand the language and how these dances work and how I can change them to fit the dancers. Sometimes the ideas work, sometimes they don’t and we move forward. The best day for me is the day in the studio when I get to see it performed” for the first time.

After that he checks in at several other stages. “You need to see it.”

There is always a libretto. Dance always has a story, even in the most abstract pieces there is always a narrative in there, Pierce said.

Jaimi Deleau as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz. Photo: David Cooper

He and Webre developed the libretto f0r Oz together. “I love working with Septime because I have some skin in the game. Getting to develop the story and work on it is really fun.”

The ballet has about 90 plus minutes of music.

“That’s a lot. Some of it gets repeated. Little by little, we build and build and build.”

The two are in regular communication with Pierce creating tracks on violin and viola and emailing them to Webre.

“That guy travels everywhere.” But as long as there is an internet connection they can get the work done.

“When I saw the opening in Kansas City, I was going ‘Oh this ballet actually works.’ I was a little nervous about it. You get so focused in you can’t see the forest, but Septime is a great storyteller. He is a real showman. There is no failure when it comes to this stuff.

“We are working with a good, wholesome story. We know these models work if you are being creative about it and being innovative and thinking about what’s funny and what works.

“The thing that makes this special is the creativity in associating with these characters and the ideas around them. I think that’s why people are responding. It’s not run of the mill.”

Right now, Pierce is working on a smaller orchestration for Wizard of Oz that can be used by smaller companies without the resources of the larger ballets.

They have done that with Alice in Wonderland.

“Audiences are seeing it in the context of ballet. Ballet has a lot of history and a lot is kind of fuddy duddy and has been languishing without any real innovation and entertainment values.

“How many white tight ballets are there? There is a lot of innovation happening in ballet, but in the story ballet Wizard of Oz is unusual. It’s a niche that hasn’t been explored.”

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents The Wizard of Oz
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Jan 23 to Jan 25
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.