Ballet lovers are in for some shock and awe this week when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet whisks viewers on a whirlwind trip to Oz, courtesy of American choreographer Septime Webre’s million-dollar contemporary ballet The Wizard of Oz.

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This article was published 30/4/2019 (1116 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ballet lovers are in for some shock and awe this week when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet whisks viewers on a whirlwind trip to Oz, courtesy of American choreographer Septime Webre’s million-dollar contemporary ballet The Wizard of Oz.

BALLET PREVIEW

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The Wizard of Oz
● Royal Winnipeg Ballet
● May 1 to 5
● Centennial Concert Hall
● Tickets: $33.57-$132.57 at rwb.org or 204-956-2792

The full-length story ballet is based on L. Frank Baum’s fantastical children’s tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which inspired the 1939 Hollywood film classic starring Judy Garland, and later, Broadway hits The Wiz and Wicked.

The ballet first took root in August 2016 after Webre invited the RWB, the Kansas City Ballet and the Colorado Ballet to journey down the balletic yellow brick road with him as a three-way co-production.

Each troupe has equally shared the ballet’s budget, and it also marks the RWB’s most ambitious show in its 79-year history.

Dancer Sophia Lee will don the ruby slippers to portray Dorothy in RWB’s The Wizard of Oz. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Dancer Sophia Lee will don the ruby slippers to portray Dorothy in RWB’s The Wizard of Oz. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The production also features a live orchestral score by American composer Matthew Pierce, 120 costumes designed by Liz Vandal, who is renowned for her Cirque du Soleil creations, Nicolas Mahon’s 20 ingenious puppets, including a terrifying troop of winged monkeys and mechanical Toto operated by an onstage puppeteer, heightened further by Aaron Rhyne’s visual projections with lighting by Trad A. Burns.

Stepping into plucky heroine Dorothy’s shoes is RWB principal dancer Sophia Lee (alternating during the five-show run with soloist Alanna McAdie). The 28-year-old Lee recalls seeing The Wizard of Oz on a VHS tape as a young girl growing up in South Korea — including hearing Garland’s iconic ballad Somewhere Over the Rainbow dubbed in Korean — not realizing she would someday portray Dorothy in a balletic re-telling of Baum’s story.

The willowy dancer’s strict upbringing made her struggle to identify with the gung-ho protagonist, requiring her to dig deeply into her wellspring of creativity to find ways to authentically connect with her character that would resonate with "truth."

Sophia Lee (MIkaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sophia Lee (MIkaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I remember having a hard time relating to this girl named Dorothy," Lee says in an interview, describing her character as a "light-hearted risk-taker who takes care of her dear friends."

"She’s a brave girl who leaves home, and takes on adventures with strange creatures... I was never allowed to have sleepovers, or even walk outside alone when I was young, so you can just imagine how shocking that was for me."

However, RWB associate artistic director Tara Birtwhistle attests that Lee’s flesh-and-blood portrayal of the storybook character has grown leaps and bounds since rehearsals began last month.

It grew further last week when Webre arrived in Winnipeg to further hone the company in his eclectic choreography that ranges from classical pirouettes performed en pointe to funky streetwise moves — yes, even the "floss" makes a cameo appearance – with RWB artistic director André Lewis likewise praising Lee’s "natural instincts" in crafting the Kansas farm-girl.

"She’s quite amazing, and is so suited for this role," Birtwhistle says of Lee’s portrayal during an interview at the RWB studios. "She’s a dance-actress to begin with, and she’s really found her own Dorothy... She’s created a contemporary character that proves strong women can lead and get themselves out of a situation. Sophia knows exactly what she wants and it’s been wonderful to watch her journey. She’s fearless."

RWB Soloist Alanna McAdie and aspirant Cameron Fraser-Monroe. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

RWB Soloist Alanna McAdie and aspirant Cameron Fraser-Monroe. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)

It’s a good thing Lee is unflappable, as Webre is known for using breathtaking, intricate lifts.

In Wizard, Dorothy is carried aloft not by one partner, but often by all three of her Oz friends: Lion (second soloist Liam Caines, with alternating casts); Scarecrow (corps de ballet member Stephan Azulay) and Tin Man (soloist Yosuke Mino) creating precariously shifting centres of gravity that requires rock-solid trust between the dancers.

Puppetry brings Dorothy's dog, flying monkeys to life

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RWB aspirant Cameron Fraser-Monroe with the puppet Toto. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

RWB aspirant Cameron Fraser-Monroe with the puppet Toto. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Nicholas Mahon’s work as a puppet and theatrical designer has taken him everywhere, from Sesame Street to the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

So, when the yellow brick road led him to the world of ballet, the Canadian-born, Emmy-nominated designer jumped at the opportunity to create almost 20 puppets for Septime Webre’s The Wizard of Oz.

Puppetry is “absolutely” unusual in ballet, Mahon says: “To incorporate puppetry seemed like an exciting fit, especially for this piece.

Read Jen Zoratti's full story

Lee also notably "flies" for her first time, soaring sky-high through the air in a tightly strapped double harness during the tornado scene in which Dorothy’s drab Kansas farm life suddenly morphs into eye-popping Oz, re-imagined by Webre as being "inside a giant disco ball."

She’s accompanied by her little dog Toto, who is so eerily realistic he appears like a real-life pooch with his onstage puppeteer, RWB aspirant/apprentice Cameron Fraser-Monroe, seeming to disappear into thin air.

"Toto! I love Toto," Lee squeals, her eyes immediately lighting up when asked about her canine companion. "Toto is so, so cute, and I actually feel he’s a real dog sometimes. Whenever I see Toto during rehearsals, I just feel so happy," she enthuses of her puppet pet.

At first blush, The Wizard of Oz might seem "only" an innocent tale of childhood enjoyed by countless generations for more than a century that has weathered the storms since first penned by Baum in 1900.

However Lee, who left her parents and brother behind in Vancouver to train at the RWB School Professional Division at age 16, delves even deeper into the story’s heart and soul, in which Dorothy finally realizes "there’s no place like home."

"The Wizard of Oz is so deep and rich as a story about home and family. I think that’s why these stories have lasted so long, because it has a core message," Lee says.

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

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

"I’ve now been here for 12 years, and Winnipeg and the RWB feels more like home now than Vancouver. I really do feel different than when I started as a younger dancer, and am now dancing from a deeper place.

"I hope when people see this ballet, that it will take them back to their own childhood, and experience a sense of freedom and that feeling of wanting adventure and being curious they had when they were young," she says.

"I’m just so proud of our company that we get to be a part of this collaboration, and feel deeply honoured and grateful to dance Dorothy."

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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