Kansas City Ballet Presents World Premiere of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Kansas City Ballet dancers Liang Fu, James Kirby Rogers, Amanda DeVenuta and Lamin Pereira dos Santos perform an Emerald City scene from “The Wizard of Oz” in advance of the full production Oct. 12 – 21 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. (KCBalletMedia / photo by Kenny Johnson)

Most of us, at one time or another, feel like we are lost or lacking. If only we could find our place in this world, maybe we’d feel smarter, or braver, or more loving.

Maybe that’s why L. Frank Baum’s fairy tale “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” written in 1900, has remained so beloved and opened itself to so many retellings.

This truly American tale is the basis for choreographer Septime Webre’s new ballet, “The Wizard of Oz,” which will be given its world premiere this October by Kansas City Ballet.

“‘The Wizard of Oz’ has always seemed like the Holy Grail to me,” said Webre. For the last six years or so, Webre has created full-length ballets based on works of literature.

“It has a beautiful story of coming of age,” he said. “Dorothy ends up where she started, but she’s changed.”

“It’s such an important part of the human experience, so it makes for really great, iconic ballet making, but in addition she encounters so many odd and bizarre characters.”

The $1 million production is a triple endeavor by Kansas City Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Colorado Ballet. “We’re getting a really big production for a third of the cost,” said Devon Carney, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet.

Though Baum wrote 14 books about the land of Oz, Webre’s ballet, like the 1939 MGM movie, is based on the first story, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

“There have been so many different versions of the telling of the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” said Carney, “but at its core there have always been these main characters”— Dorothy and the Wizard, Glenda and the Wicked Witch, along with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.

Dressed as the Scarecrow, Kansas City Ballet dancer James Kirby Rogers performs a scene from the “Wizard of Oz” in advance of the full production Oct. 12 – 21 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. (KCBalletMedia / photo by Kenny Johnson)

The ballet features some visual inspiration from the movie, used as frame of reference, not re-creation. “I wanted to make sure it was not going to be an attempt at an exact duplication of the movie,” Carney said.

The creative team is similar to the group that brought about Webre’s “Alice (In Wonderland),” which KC Ballet performed in 2014, and includes costume design by Liz Vandal, an original score by Matthew Pierce, puppetry by Nicholas Mahon, projections by video and projection designer Aaron Rhyne, set design by Michael B. Raiford and lighting by Trad A. Burns.

This ballet is not Webre’s first attempt at adapting the story, however. “I’ve been living with this story since I was a very small child.”

Growing up in the Bahamas, he remembers the story read to him and then reading it to himself, too. In a trip to the States, he saw the Technicolor marvel for the first time.

“I was just so drawn into this amazing story.” He listened, often, to a soundtrack version of the movie, with the songs and dialogue. “I knew it completely by heart as a child.”

After the family moved to Texas, he and his siblings bought puppets and reshaped them as the Oz characters, touring a stripped-down version of the story to local nursing homes and schools.

Though he’s scaling up for this production, in a way it’s like coming home again, presenting a new spin on the classic.

Carney hopes audiences, too, join in the adventure. So close to Kansas — who knows what can happen?

Kansas City Ballet presents “The Wizard of Oz” Oct. 12 to 21 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For more information and tickets, visit kcballet.org.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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