The beloved characters of L. Frank Baum’s timeless 1900 children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, have traipsed down the yellow brick road on the page and on the silver screen in Victor Fleming’s classic 1939 film. Now they’re taking the ballet stage by storm.
“This is Broadway-ballet, because it’s so over-the-top,” says Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet. “The sets, the costumes — it’s got these projections. And maybe the most amazing hero of it all is the puppet and the puppeteer (of) Toto the dog.”
Toto and friends come to the Queen City by way of Septime Webre, the choreographic mastermind behind the balletic reimagining, whose larger-than-life storybook productions of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan have also been performed by Cincinnati Ballet. In The Wizard of Oz, there are some familiar visual and storyline elements from the film, but the music is all-new, featuring a composition by Matthew Pierce (also the composer of the balletic Alice in Wonderland).
“Just like creating any new work, you just hope that Miss Muse lands on your shoulder, and you can figure out ways of telling the story musically without thinking about the movie score, which of course is so familiar to everyone,” says Carmon DeLeone, Cincinnati Ballet’s music director. He understands the process perhaps better than most; he encountered a similar circumstance when he composed the music for the balletic version of Peter Pan.
“We have the advantage, or disadvantage, however you want to look at it, of not having the spoken word as they did in the movie,” DeLeone says. “You can cover a lot of stuff, as in the movie, with just simple dialogue, but it’s our responsibility to have music from beginning to end.”
The Wizard of Oz was co-commissioned by three different ballet companies, including Colorado Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Morgan says it was a big creative challenge for the companies.
“I think the reason that you do a work like this is because it’s important to keep bringing that younger generation into this art form,” she says. “There’s a few really iconic stories that we sometimes call Disney stories — this is a Warner Brothers story — and they resonate. You just say the title, and it resonates. And the choreography is very clever and inventive. It was quite the choreographic feat.”
Up for the challenge are principal dancer Melissa Gelfin, performing as Dorothy in several showings, and Cincinnati Ballet Second Company dancer Sterling Manka, who was chosen by Morgan to act as the puppeteer for Toto for the duration of the ballet’s run. Several puppets are featured in the ballet, including flying monkeys, but Toto is the star.
Manka not only learned how to manipulate the puppet (a sweetly scruffy white and gray dog, created by Emmy-nominated designer Nicholas Mahon, whose work was most recently featured in the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony) but also himself.
“I move Toto around the stage and give him life and give him interactions between people,” Manka says. “It’s really interesting because I have to be aware of where I am — more importantly where Toto is — because I can’t be covering him or get in the way. Not only do I have to know where he is physically onstage, but he always has to be focused and looking at something. He’s a very curious little dog. He’s a scrappy dude and really curious and loves everybody and all the characters.”
Toto is his own character, too, though, and Manka is tasked with making the pup as three-dimensional as the other dancers make the characters they physically embody, as well as creating organic interactions with them. As Dorothy and Toto, Gelfin and Manka have all formed their own unique relationship.
“I’ve caught myself a few times wanting to interact with Sterling, but I’m like, ‘No, the dog!’ ” Gelfin says. “For us, it’s very much, you’re interacting with people here (she gestures to eye-level) but he’s doing all of this work to make sure that he is Toto, so technically he’s not there. It’s all about Toto, so this energy has to go this way (she gestures to a dog’s level).”
Recreating Oz in a different art form, while retaining the film’s spirit — from which several visual elements and themes are borrowed — as well as the original book’s source material, is something the company and the creators ran with.
The flying monkeys are dancers who soar across the stage, as are the poppies in the poppy field where Dorothy and her sidekicks — Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man — fall asleep. When Dorothy makes her way to the Emerald City, everyone is bathed in green light. Projections are essential for making the twister come to life, and the scale of the set pieces is sky-high. The yellow brick road here is not static, rather, several dancers in yellow brick costumes act as the road; Gelfin and Manka affectionately refer to these dancers as “roadies”.
“There’s so much invention around telling this story,” Morgan says. “I think, because you’ve seen the movie and you’re looking for certain iconic ideas and moments, you’ll find that in the ballet.”
The most iconic element of The Wizard of Oz tale is perhaps the pair of ruby-red slippers; in the book, they were silver, but back in 1939, studio officials wanted to take advantage of Technicolor and changed them to red. They are red in the ballet, too, and Gelfin promises a magical quick-change pointe shoe surprise when Dorothy steps from the monochrome world of Kansas into the colorful Oz, though she won’t reveal the secret.
“It’s probably good we have two weekends,” she says, “because you’re going to want to come twice.”
The Wizard of Oz runs Oct. 25 through Nov. 3 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Tickets/more info: cballet.org.