The Wizard of Oz Review
The Aotea Theatre was packed to the upper circle - a rare sight for ballet in Auckland. The occasion was artistic director Francesco Ventriglia’s new production of The Wizard of Oz by the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).
The opening scene was of a solitary hospital bed almost engulfed by a huge box-like set painted with fluffy clouds against a blue sky. In this revised version of the much loved story by L. Frank Baum, Ventriglia’s personal adaptation has reimagined Dorothy not as swept away by a Kansas tornado but comatose from an illness. It is her coma-induced delusions that have taken her to Oz and the Emerald City.
The cloudscape set remained throughout the ballet; its windows opened like an advent calendar to reveal ornate vignettes, its doors ushered in an array of extraordinary characters. At first it was unsettling to adjust to the surreal landscape where protagonists arrived and left out of nowhere - reminiscent of the great Italian film director Federico Fellini. Dorothy’s first encounter in Oz was with the Munchkins - a gambolling band of dancers, decked out in modernistic, 1920s black and white bathing costumes, and twirling beach umbrellas.
In charming encounters Dorothy met and was partnered by her three companions - an endearing Loughlan Prior as a rubber-leg Scarecrow, Massimo Margaria as a sincere and endearing Tin Man, and an exuberant Lion danced Jacob Chown. They all jousted for Dorothy’s affections with different styles – lifts flips, slides, pointe to floor work in an exhilarating mix of contemporary ballet and aerobics.
Lucy Green was a sparkling Dorothy, shining in her ability to master the huge range of styles and stamina. She barely left the stage for the entire two acts. From a little tap routine when she tried on the red shoes, to her plucky escape from the malevolent Witch of the West, to pure elegance in the highly technical classical Porcelain scene, she was a quintessential Dorothy. And then in the penultimate scene she gave her heart to the allusive Wizard – danced with panache by the all too handsome William Fitzgerald.
Mayu Tanigaito was a searing Witch of the West – a bat-like creature with razor sharp leaps, she struck at the hapless four, aided by her masked flying monkeys. In contrast Abigail Boyle was a soft and reassuring Glinda, the Witch of the North – albeit with a poignant lilt to her characterisation. Laura Jones was mesmeric in her refined control as the Princess of Porcelain.
The design by Gianluca Falaschi was both rich and spare – depending on the context. As the foursome gained traction and their characters overcome obstacles, so did the design become more fully realised and ornate. And as Dorothy’s medical condition improved, the choreography of her dreams became more coherent.
In the second act, the glittering neon arches of the Emerald City, the delicate white and blue tiered set for the porcelain scene, and the finale - a huge bunch of carnival red balloons holding a basket which ascended to carry away the Wizard - all signalled the transition from dissociation to reality.
Finally Dorothy was restored to health and her senses, and her beloved Uncle Henry, played by Sir Jon Trimmer has his niece returned to him. But he too had to take his leave as Dorothy’s journey to Oz signalled a rite of passage, and she awoke as a young woman, intent on following her own pathway.
This production of the Wizard impressed on a number of levels. As an allegorical work, it was cleverly framed. As a spectacle, it excelled with sets, design and costumes. In choreographic terms, it challenged the dancers with both technical and classical demands – and the company delivered with elevation, speed and assurance.
While there were aspects which would benefit from further reflection – stronger characterisation of Dorothy’s companions, and a clearer narrative in Act 1 for example – the work signalled a new dimension for the company – a fully realised European creative ethos. The arrangement of a selection of music by French 20th century composer Francis Poulenc wonderfully partnered the work with balance and nuance, aside from one or two occasions which were a little over-wrought.
Ventriglia has delivered a winner for his company – a memorable tale for generations young and old told with flare, spectacle and momentum. It augurs well for the future of the RNZB.