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Review: Colorado Ballet most on point with small-group dances in “The Wizard of Oz”

New dance version of classic American story swirls with new music, wild costumes, puppets and powerful performances by the Wicked Witch and Dorothy and her crew.

The Lion, (Christopher Moulton), the Scarecrow (Nicolas Pelletier) and the Tin Man, (Francisco Estevez) carry "The Wizard of Oz," and often Dorothy (Dana Benton), with extreme lifts and throws. (Mike Watson, Colorado Ballet)
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The Colorado Ballet’s “The Wizard of Oz” landed at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House Friday night in a whirlwind of dance and theater.

The $1.1 million production was fruit of a unique collaboration of the Colorado Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Winnipeg Royal Ballet. The trio certainly got its money’s worth.

So does the audience in a swirl of goofy-to-stylish costumes, video, puppets, dances both athletic and delicate, not to mention witches and monkeys and Dorothy flying above the stage.

There is a great appetite for story ballets and artistic directors know they fill seats. Not a fan, personally, too much pointing at the ring finger to show the prince must marry or clenching of hands and pounding of the chest to show the pleasant girl jilted by the duke has gone mad.

But in “Oz,” choreographer Septime Webre, who has been enamored with the story since he was a 12-year-old in South Texas, has chosen a tale so iconic that everyone in the audience knows it and not much explanation is needed, except, perhaps, for the youngest theatergoers.

Still, the storytelling is helped by the clever use of puppetry by Nicholas Mahon and video art by Aaron Rhyne. Mahon’s greatest contribution is a remarkable puppet of Dorothy’s dog. Thank goodness, Toto, you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Dorothy (Dana Benton) dances her plea to the great and powerful Oz with her dog Toto (Benjamin Rose) nearby. (Mike Watson, Colorado Ballet)

The essence of a ballet is, however, the dancing. This is where, stripped of all the stagecraft, there were shining moments.

The first thing an Oz story needs is a good Dorothy and a bad Wicked Witch. This production has them in Dana Benton and Morgan Buchanan. While the movie Dorothy is always anxious, Benton’s Kansas farm girl seems to savor the adventure, which is good considering she is sucked up into the rafters by a tornado and snatched from the stage by Flying Monkeys.

Wicked Witch danced by Morgan Buchanan. (Mike Watson, Colorado Ballet)

Buchanan is a very good bad witch, and while her dances as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch are short, she makes the most of them, her haughtiness and menace helped by the theme music provided by Matthew Pierce, who composed the original score. Buchanan has wonderful stage presence and also flies around that stage a lot.

The biggest challenges were the ensemble dances. Munchkin Land seemed a little frenetic with driving music that didn’t feel munchkinesque.

The scene in the witch’s castle also was a little rushed, with Buchanan’s solo, a flying scarecrow, the fight over the witch’s broomstick and Dorothy tossing the pail of water — a vivid blue silk creation by Mahon — on the Wicked Witch all at a machine-gun pace.

More successful was the dreamy dance of the poppies. (This when Dorothy and her friends fall victim of a sleeping spell on the way to the Emerald City.)

The poppy dancers enter in line, each doing an arabesque, a nod to the entry of the shades in dream scene of the classic ballet “La Bayadère,” which also involves a sleeping dancer and poppies — though in that case in the form of opium.

The poppy dance is light and ethereal with Pierce’s music to match. The Emerald City is a giant disco, and here there is a quick nod to John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” Great fun.

On the whole, Webre is most successful, and so are the dancers, with the smaller dances, the solos, pas de deux and pas de quatre.

Chandra Kuykendall as the Emerald Ballerina and Domenico Luciano as the Emerald Officer in the Colorado Ballet’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” (Mike Watson, Colorado Ballet)

Chandra Kuykendall, as the Emerald Ballerina, and Domenico Luciano, as her Emerald Officer, dance a lovely and elegant pas de deux to a beautiful tune. (Kudos to Kuykendall who also played Aunt Em and the Good Witch Glinda. Luciano doubled as Professor Marvel and the Wizard.)

The heart of the Oz story and this ballet is the relationship between Dorothy and her newfound friends, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. It is here that some of the best dancing is done.

The Scarecrow (Nicolas Pelletier), the Tin Man, (Francisco Estevez), and the Lion, (Christopher Moulton) each had solos that established their character and gave them a theme song — each solo as good as the next.

The Scarecrow (Nicolas Pelletier) and the Tin Man, (Francisco Estevez) with Dorothy (Dana Benton) and her puppet dog Toto (Benjamin Rose.) (Mike Watson, Colorado Ballet)

Led by the lithe Benton, the quartet carries the story, and in many instances Benton, with extreme lifts and throws. Pelletier’s dancing is ropey, Estevez’s precise and machinelike, and Moulton oscillates between bravado and fear. In all, the four do what people hope to see when they go to the theater: create something special that lives on stage for a moment.

The “Wizard of Oz” opened in Kansas City in the fall and after its sold-out, 10-performance run in Denver it moves to Winnipeg in the spring. Since the Colorado Ballet owns a share of the production, one can only hope for an encore.

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