ROYAL NEW ZEALAND BALLET
Choreography: Francesco Ventriglia
Design: Gianluca Falaschi
Music: Francis Poulenc
June 2nd, ASB Theatre
The story of how the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz came to life is almost as lovely as the classic children’s tale itself. Artistic Director and Choreographer Francesco Ventriglia first heard of Dorothy, the Wizard and the Emerald City while in hospital as a small boy. To help keep him occupied, Ventriglia’s mother would take him to visit a little girl who was in isolation in the hospital. When one day she was no longer there, his mother explained that the girl had gone on an adventure to the Emerald City in the Land of Oz. It was following this stay in hospital that Ventriglia asked for ballet lessons, and began his journey to professional dance.
Ventriglia’s The Wizard of Oz was originally conceived as a one act ballet to be staged in Florence. Before the opening night of the ballet, part of the ceiling of the theatre collapsed, and the show never premiered. Now, eighteen months into his role as Artistic Director for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, he has reworked the ballet into a full length, two act narrative classic. Elements of the ballet echo Ventriglia’s personal connection with the story, particularly Dorothy’s passage to Oz; no tornado in this version, rather the heroine in a coma in hospital, her imagination carrying her away.
I had read that the ballet closely followed the L. Frank Baum children’s book, rather than the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie musical, so the imaginative interpretation of some characters and the divergence of plot from the film was not a surprise. Many elements worked well, although I felt a layer of Dorothy’s character was lost without that real tug-of-war between her desire to grow more independent and her emotional ties with Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and the sepia-toned images of home.
The Wizard of Oz provided plenty of magic, with a lovely variety of scenes, characters, costumes and colour. The music of Francis Poulenc generally supported the story, although the quality of the recordings and lack of an orchestra was disappointing. Occasionally, the music detracted from the performance for me, particularly in The Wizard’s solo, danced commendably by MacLean Hopper on opening night in Auckland. The use of an organ was so melodramatic that it produced some stifled giggles amongst the audience.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet is a company of beautifully trained, technical performers, and it was the quality of the dancing that was the highlight of this season for me. It was delightful to see Sir Jon Trimmer onstage with the company again, and Lucy Green as Dorothy seemed absolutely made for the role. She was endearing, expressive and developed in her characterisation. Her neat and controlled performance was sustained throughout the ballet, and she dances with confidence and panache. The Witch of the West, Mayu Tanigaito, was The Wizard of Oz’s trump card. Her power, elevation, speed and effortless high extension is thrilling. I wanted much more of her character in the ballet, and her melting under Dorothy’s bucket of water was too quick to give Tanigaito much dramatic scope.
Dorothy’s three loyal chums, the Scarecrow (Loughlin Prior), Tin Man (Massimo Margaria) and Lion (Jacob Chown) provided good continuity through the narratives twists and turns. Prior was an instantly lovable Scarecrow, dancing with equal measures of fluidity and strength. He created the strongest connection with the audience, and worked to draw us in more successfully than the other characters. Margaria’s performance was neat, although I felt his movement vocabulary was underdeveloped in this choreography. His barely-there costume detracted rather than enhanced his character and made it difficult to connect emotionally with the usually-sweet Tin Man. Jacob Chown’s Lion was suitably strong and masculine. His costume, too, was less than what I expected and did not enhance the role.
Abigail Boyle as Glinda, Witch of the North was elegant and expressive. I felt her pas des deux with MacLean Hopper was not especially well-matched and did not do either dancer justice. The strongly romantic relationship between Glinda and The Wizard, sealed with a kiss at the end, was slightly odd, especially given the equally romantic pas de deux with Dorothy that followed it. The Kingdom of Porcelain in Act Two provided the white act of the narrative ballet, with varied classical choreography and tutus to satisfy the balletomanes amongst us.
There was a lot to like in The Wizard of Oz, with a wide variety of dance styles touched upon, small moments of contemporary, creative partnering, and even a ruby-slippered tap dance by Dorothy herself. The set had some great elements, such as the Wizard’s balloon-powered teacup and the Emerald City lights, yet lacked the spectacle and extravagance I was hoping for. The The Wizard of Oz is sold-out across the country, and the reaction of audience members around me was generally very positive, if a little confused by some plot and character decisions.
cred: Stephen A'Court