Hey Toto, you aren’t in Kansas anymore. You’re at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, and the tale of how you got there has more twists and turns than a yellow brick road — and a $1.1 million price tag.
When the curtain goes up Feb. 1, Toto, flying monkeys and the dancers from the Colorado Ballet will soar into a brand-new “Wizard of Oz.” It will also mark the culmination of a two-year experiment in financing a major production.
The cost of the ballet — as well as a host of creative decisions — was split between the Colorado Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet, none of which likely could have shouldered Septime Webre’s big-dollar production alone.
“This can become a template for regional companies, when you get companies that are willing to work with each other and give up their egos to the higher goal,” said Jeffrey Bentley, the executive director of the Kansas City Ballet. “We can’t keep depending on the Swan Lakes, the Cinderellas and the Sleeping Beauties. We need more narrative ballets.”
The story of this dazzling production — with its flying monkeys, swirling video-projected tornado, disco ball Emerald City and original score — began in South Texas in the 1970s.
It was there that then 12-year-old Septime Webre and his brothers (he has seven and one sister) walked across the border to buy 99-cent Mexican marionettes. They made new costumes for the puppets, built a theater and put on a 30-minute version of “The Wizard of Oz.” They were fans, having read all the original L. Frank Baum Oz books.
“It was pretty professional,” Webre said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong, where he is artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet. “We toured for the summer at nursing homes and church bazaars.”
Bringing something unique to the iconic tale
“Both the books and the film have loomed large in my psyche, but it seemed too huge, too iconic,” Webre said. “I’ve shied away from works I didn’t think I could bring something unique to.”
And so, as a choreographer and longtime director of the Washington National Ballet, he choreographed “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Great Gatsby.”
The breakthrough came, Webre said, when he made a ballet of “Alice in Wonderland,” getting at the story through secondary characters. “Alice was inspiring,” he said. Webre then started floating the idea of a “Wizard of Oz” ballet to companies.
Both the Colorado Ballet and Kansas City Ballet had success in staging Webre’s “Alice” and were interested. Bentley flew to Denver to talk to Gil Boggs, the Colorado Ballet’s artistic director, about the venture.
“The appeal was sharing the risk,” Boggs said. “The risk was whether we could work together.”
Then there was the question of how many companies to involve. “Two seemed too few and four too many,” Bentley said.
Before joining the Kansas City Ballet, Bentley had been executive director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. So, Canada was his next stop and the ballet troika was born.
The trio approved Webre’s $1 million budget in 2016, and the game was on. Webre started assembling a creative team, mostly folks with whom he had collaborated before. New York composer Matthew Pierce and Montreal costume designer Liz Vandal had both worked on “Alice” and Webre’s “Sleepy Hollow.”
Puppeteer Nicholas Mahon was in Azerbaijan working on the opening of the Islamic Solidarity Games when he got a call from Webre about Oz. Webre and Mahon, who is responsible for characters including the Gingerbread T-Rex in the Sesame Street parody “Jurassic Cookie,” spoke for an hour, and the Brooklyn-based puppet maker was onboard.
Then there was Austin, Texas-based set designer Michael B. Raiford and New York video-projection designer Aaron Rhyne, who had worked on “The Sun Also Rises.”
With Webre in Hong Kong and the creative team spread over the North American continent, the work began. “It is the way the entertainment industry is now,” Rhyne said. “Lots of emails, calls at strange times, lot of Skype and FaceTime. I don’t think all of us were in the same room till the opening in Kansas City last fall.”
Meanwhile, the artistic and executive directors of the three ballet companies set up a procedure to monitor the production and its budget. They created a limited liability company, Oz Ballet LLC, as the project’s legal and financing mechanism.
There were all kinds of issues to sort out. The shares had to be adjusted since the Canadian dollar initially was weaker than the U.S. dollar, making the production more expensive for Winnipeg. There was budget creep, and the question of who got the ballet first.
Everyone wanted flying monkeys
All these things were hashed out in a weekly Friday morning conference call. “It would get intense at some times,” Boggs said. “There was a lot of give-and-take. If you want the flying monkeys, we’re going to have to cut back on costumes here or there.”
“Everyone wanted flying monkeys,” Boggs said. “One of the first discussions was how are we going to make the flying monkeys work?”
Another top priority was that some of the dances would be created with dancers from each of the companies so that each “would have their DNA in the production,” Boggs said.
Webre arrived in Denver in the late summer of 2017 to work with the dancers of the Colorado Ballet on the first act Kansas farm scene. “I workshopped with each company so each would have movement ownership in the ballet,” Webre said.
At the time, the Colorado Ballet’s Dorothy, principal dancer Dana Benton, was pregnant, expecting a baby in October. That didn’t stop her from putting on pointe shoes and blocking out steps with Webre. “We just didn’t do the lifts,” she said.
The diminutive Benton, now in her 18th season with the Colorado Ballet, is the company’s go-to dancer for the fairytale roles, having played Alice, Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” and Tinker Bell in “Peter Pan.”
“I like to challenge dancers, give them steps they aren’t used to,” Webre said. “There is virtuosity in the dancing, ballet tricks not just to wow the audience, but as a metaphor of living life on the edge. That is what Dorothy and her friends are doing.”
For Benton, that includes big lifts, being tossed around, sucked up into the rafters by the tornado and snatched off the stage by the monkeys. For this, she gets hazard pay. “This ballet is non-stop with big bravado steps,” she said. “The audience is going to be on the edge of their seats.”
A couple of weeks before the opening, company soloist Christophor Moulton was rehearsing his solo as the Cowardly Lion. It left him huffing and puffing. “I know what he means,” Moulton said of Webre’s choreography. “In ‘Swan Lake,’ there is a lot of pantomime to tell the story, and here the steps bring out the character by themselves.”
After choreographing the farm scene and some of Munchkinland in Denver, Webre was off to Winnipeg where he worked on the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion dances, and then on to Kansas City to work on the Emerald City and the finale.
Colorado ballet mistress Sandy Brown went to Winnipeg and Kansas City to teach the farm scene, and ballet mistresses from the two other companies came to Denver to teach their dances. At the same time, portions of Raiford’s sets were being built in each city.
Meanwhile, the rest of the design team was trying to integrate their work into the production. “In a dance piece, you want the dancers to be the focus, and inanimate things can disrupt that,” Mahon said. “We tried to find areas where puppets were the best solution, where they can extend the dancers or create tension.”
For the Seoul Olympics opening ceremony, Mahon created massive puppets, including a 30-foot-long tiger. For Oz, his two major contributions were the flying monkeys, some with 10-foot wingspans and Toto, a cute little white dog with big eyes who happens to be a puppet.
“It is a very different ballet, it was an experiment in a way,” Mahon said “The amount of scenery, costumes and puppets is just very different, pushing the tools that ballet normally utilizes.”
In Canada, Vandal was turning out rafts of costumes. There are more than 100 costume changes in the ballet, and even though Webre and Pierce had worked for six months on the score after the workshops, they had to edit and tweak the music as dances ran shorter or longer.
Rhyne was also trying to calibrate his work. “Video allows you take things to another level, but it can also take over the stage,” he said. “My role was to guide the eye, to do a big moment, a transition when the dance stops and land you at the next dance.”
He created a tornado, swirling yellow brick roads and a murky witch’s castle.
“We all were aware that we had big shoes to fill. With ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ everyone has a visual image,” Rhyne said. In fact, Warner Bros., a subsidiary of Time Warner, still owns the rights to the film version and wanted to see what these ballet companies were up to.
“We had to negotiate with them, and at first, they wanted to see every design,” Bentley said.
Last October, everything finally came together in Kansas City for the premiere of the ballet. “I thanked Jeff profusely for taking the bullet,” Boggs said.
“Septime was literally on the stage choreographing up until the curtain went up,” Boggs said. “The ballet mistresses were in the wings yelling out counts … with all the chaos backstage, the beauty was onstage.”
The ballet was a huge success for Kansas City with $750,000 in single-ticket sales (not counting season tickets) for the 10-performance run. “‘The Wizard Oz’ was the highest-grossing production we have ever done in 61 years, bigger than ‘The Nutcracker,’” Bentley said.
“Given the complexity of this production,” Bentley said, reflecting on the two-year journey, “there were so many chances for disaster.”
But now Toto, the flying monkeys, the Munchkins, the Wicked Witch of the West and all the rest are descending upon the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
“It’s not quite a miracle, but it was certainly a huge effort by three companies,” Boggs said. “It’s a great template for productions for regional companies.” On its own, the Colorado Ballet might be able to produce a full-length ballet of this scale once in 20 years, Boggs said. Five other companies have already inquired about renting the production.
“Your biggest fear when you undertake something like this is, ‘What is the quality of the production going to end up being,’ and ‘Will other companies be interested in renting it,’” Boggs said. “Only time will tell.”
If You Go
“The Wizard of Oz” will be performed 10 times in Denver between Feb. 1 and 10. For tickets and information, visit coloradoballet.org
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