August 15, 2020

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An enchanting Wizard

RWB's glitzy new show like 'ballet on steroids'

The Tin Man (Yosuke Mino), Scarecrow (Stephan Azulay) , Dorothy (Sophia Lee) and the Lion (Liam Caines) with Toto (puppeteered by Cameron Fraser-Monroe). (Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet)</p>

The Tin Man (Yosuke Mino), Scarecrow (Stephan Azulay) , Dorothy (Sophia Lee) and the Lion (Liam Caines) with Toto (puppeteered by Cameron Fraser-Monroe). (Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/5/2019 (471 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When the Royal Winnipeg Ballet opened its eagerly anticipated run of The Wizard of Oz, on Wednesday night, it presented a blockbuster ballet so bold and often quite brilliant one might be tempted to say American choreographer Septime Webre has turned the rarified art form on its head.

Or maybe he has redefined it for the 21st century as a mosh pit of classical rigour and sassy streetwise attitude harnessed unapologetically to the chariots of modern-day digital technology in which to spin its narrative.

It’s also safe to say that the likes of this co-production with Kansas City Ballet and Colorado Ballet has never been seen on this stage before, with the RWB’s Canadian première being the most ambitious ballet staged in its illustrious 79-year history. Wednesday night’s near-capacity crowd of all ages at the Centennial Concert Hall was buzzing louder than a Kansas beehive.

(Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet)</p>

(Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet)

Based on L. Frank Baum’s fantastical children’s tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which in turn inspired the 1939 Hollywood film classic starring Judy Garland, and later, Broadway hits The Wiz and Wicked, the two-hour production (including intermission) tells the tale of Kansas farm girl Dorothy, who dreams of adventure and embarks on a journey to the magical land of Oz before realizing "there’s no place like home."

Webre has wisely avoided slavishly following its famous storyline, instead allowing his own creative juices to flow while spotlighting Dorothy’s companions on the Yellow Brick Road: Scarecrow, Lion, and the Tin Man.

Notably, his daring ballet has a cinematic sensibility and has received a critical stamp of approval by Warner Bros., which holds tight rein over the 1939 film’s intellectual property during the ballet's development period that began in 2016.

Sophia Lee (MIkaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sophia Lee (MIkaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The show’s highly dense choreography, often akin to ballet on steroids, also showcases a whipsaw range of styles including those with populist appeal. We see hoe-downs and Studio 54-worthy disco numbers; sly references to classical ballet including Petipa’s La Bayadère with even a few cygnets thrown in for good measure from Swan Lake; funky jazz combinations with even the "floss" making a cameo appearance.

This is all firmly grounded in virtuosic ballet technique, performed en pointe with the show’s kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of styles. It tests this company’s mettle with its dancers tackling Webre’s choreography with aplomb.

The first of those is principal dancer Sophia Lee, who infused her pivotal character of Dorothy with a perfect storm of innocent guile and restless yearning. Seemingly spending more time aloft in Webre’s jaw-dropping, intricate lifts that often include three or four dancers, Lee’s superb acting skills and ability to fill the stage with her charismatic presence, including extending her long limbs to their zenith, created a wholly believable dreamer who giggles with delight whenever little Toto leaps into her arms and fearlessly stares down the Wicked Witch of the West.

Each solo given to her is rendered with conviction and expressive musicality, as well as during her gorgeous "pas de quatre" with her three friends under a luminous full moon before the terrifying troop of flying monkeys. What a joy to also see this ballerina bopping and grooving for all she’s worth in her glittery ruby pointe shoes during several ensemble scenes, clearly having the time of her life.

Each of her friends (also performing as farmhands), include: Lion (Liam Caines); Scarecrow (Stephan Azulay) and Tin Man (Yosuke Mino) also execute their own distinct choreography with panache, particularly highlighted during their individual solos that sees Lion trembling in fear, Scarecrow slipped about the stage like a ragdoll, and Tin Man thrusted his limbs with creaky, angular movement. When the funky trio arrives in the Emerald City, it channels the spirit of John Travolta’s iconic disco number in Saturday Night Fever becoming a hilarious highlight.

The performance is firmly grounded in virtuosic ballet technique, performed en pointe with the show’s kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of styles. (Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet)</p>

The performance is firmly grounded in virtuosic ballet technique, performed en pointe with the show’s kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of styles. (Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet)

Another standout performance — and revelation — is Jaimi Deleau as the Wicked Witch (doubling as Miss Gulch), who brought a larger-than-life dramatic intensity to her role that drives this plot forward, including cycling through air during the frightening tornado scene. Principal dancer Dmitri Dovgoselets also brought imperial bearing to his role as the Wizard, and doppelgangers Prof. Marvel and Green Whiskers.

Several scenes take one’s breath away. A field of poppies that lead to the four friend’s woozy opium-induced slumber perform a gorgeous waltz against Aaron Rhyne’s silhouetted projections until soloist Yayoi Ban’s radiant Glinda appears with snowfall to break their spell.

The quartet’s arrival in Munchkinland, after the whirling twister scene, is an eye-popper, including Liz Vandal’s psychedelic costumes and saturated lighting effects by Trad A. Burns that provide relief from the drab Kansas farmland.

The winged monkeys that suddenly swarm the stage in the second act, including puppets designed by Nicholas Mahon and three flying (human) monkeys garbed in leather, slash at riding crops in time to Matthew Pierce’s magnificent, eclectic original score (with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra impeccably led by maestro Julian Pellicano) matching Webre’s artistic vision note for note.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The flying monkey puppets just before they were packed up to be transported to the Centennial Concert Hall for the RWB production.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The flying monkey puppets just before they were packed up to be transported to the Centennial Concert Hall for the RWB production.

The adorable polar bear cubs that emerge from hibernation every year during the RWB’s Nutcracker now have rivals: an ensemble of bug-eyed baby grasshoppers, as well as Poppyseeds and Baby Ballerinas performed by students of the RWB School Recreational Division elicited oohs and ahhs from the crowd.

Special mention goes to Cameron Fraser-Monroe as onstage puppeteer for little marionette Toto, his entire physical and emotional being amplifying the puppet pooch as he seamlessly navigated its mechanics and flew about the stage with the bounding canine, virtually disappearing into thin air that also drew loud gasps of delight.

There’s plenty of humour in the show as well, with Webre solving the problem of how to depict the Yellow Brick Road with eight bowler-hatted, bespectacled "roadies" festooned with "bricks" moving a large incline ramp about the stage for Dorothy and friends to follow.

The Wizard at first appears not in person, but as a looming visual projection with hollowed-out eyes, instilling its own fascinating sub-text regarding contemporary society’s ongoing deification of technology.

Sophia Lee preparing Dorothy's ruby slippers. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sophia Lee preparing Dorothy's ruby slippers. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

There are a lot — repeat, a lot — of steps in this show that might arguably be hailed as a Red Bull ballet. The first act sometimes feels breathlessly frenetic until the narrative gains a firm foothold. Some scenes, such as apples dropping from trees, also feel overly prolonged. Structurally, Webre wisely sticks to such classical tenets as divertissement, which allows viewers (and dancers) to catch their collective breath.

The show’s denouement, in which Dorothy clicks her ruby slippers three times to take her home to Kansas comes quickly, although by the intense ballet’s end, we’re ready for home, ourselves.

Still, this enormously entertaining Broadway-meets-ballet that met with a rousing standing ovation and loud stadium-like cheers on opening night is one that will likely be remembered for a long time, as the eye of the storm in the ever-evolving art form we know and hold dear as "ballet."

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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