It is a particular pleasure when one has followed the work of a choreographer over several years to find oneself at the world première of a ballet which proves to be the perfect marriage of his style with a story. Add to that an exuberant score, composed by Matthew Pierce, the all-important lighting transformation to technicolour by Trad Burns, an adroit staging by Michael Raiford and Aaron Rhyne, and properly fantastical costumes, designed to the last limit of quirkiness by Liz Vandal, and you get the experience that it was at the opening night of Septime Webre’s Wizard of Oz. A collaborative production with the Colorado Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Balles, it seems only fitting that when the famed tornado whisks Dorothy somewhere over the rainbow for the first time in ballet’s history, it should be from a theatre in Kansas City.

KC Ballet dancers James Kirby Rogers as the Scarecrow with Amanda DeVenuta and company dancers © Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios
KC Ballet dancers James Kirby Rogers as the Scarecrow with Amanda DeVenuta and company dancers
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

There can be few choreographers more life-affirming than Webre, indeed few for whom personal background have had a more distinctively generous impress. Bursting forth from a large Cuban-American family, his first two (teenage) forays into staging the Wizard were touring a marionette-production through nursing homes and orphanages, and with special-needs actors at a youth program. He had imagined the ballet for years, but waited until he had something distinctive to say. And now he has said it, and with enormous success.

Nobody more fitting could be found to envision the quirky exuberance of an American fantasy world (whilst I had doubts about his Alice, I had none at all about Dorothy, for all that both are transatlantic cousins). Victorian fantasy may be at one remove from him, but his very American fearlessness in incorporating various dance idioms, notably the Travolta-like disco-trance of Emerald City was a massive part of the charm tonight. In Pierce, there was a meeting of minds: the score was an asset to the whole, from the Coplandesque hoe-down down-home style for the Midwestern farmers in a grayscale Kansas to grooving disco and glam-rock guitar in Oz.

Webre came of age in an efflorescence of pop culture, and his choices are full of droll allusions. He gets the fakery of Oz, its lurid bling and glitziness (dazzling to a rural Midwestern gal), and brings new meaning out of the cosmetic makeover of the principals, ending with boa and bespectacled selfies with flash-bulb cameras. Miss Gulch (played with venomous angles by Danielle Bausinger) was a kind of comme-des-garçons neo-Victorian (complete with bicycle racing through the air) before witchery made her luridly green and purple; her henchwomen were re-imagined as leather-clad dominatrixes, with switches. It shows how far we are from deep existential malice in a Webrian world that her music most often made her more comic than scary, except in the Castle scene. She never stands a chance – a pantomime villain. The Scarecrow, danced by James Kirby Rogers, with the kind of fetching awkwardness that of course fools nobody as to its panache and skill, was a sort of Carnaby Street punk; Tinman, steampunk style only much jollier, was the neat-footed Lamin Pereira dos Santos; the Lion was a comic Liang Fu (the music for his cowardice, superb).

KC Ballet Dancer Amanda DeVenuta © Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios
KC Ballet Dancer Amanda DeVenuta
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

In Amanda DeVenuta, Webre found the ideal Dorothy. With her ethereal but vivid features, her ability to look both the kind of person who escapes into fantasy land (being lifted and turned so often), but who still has her feet on the ground (her espièglerie, her attentiveness to the antics of the other-world), one could not have done better. Webre makes her journey central by incarnating the Yellow Brick Road as a set of characters – Roadies – who become the hands on which she walks. And she did have a Toto, an endearing puppet, 'danced' by Jeremy Hanson: the ballet ended with the innocent simplicity of doggie-girl domestic happiness. Nicholas Mahon’s puppetry didn’t end there but included the terrifying winged monkeys; the fantastical was further enhanced by a variety of clever video projections from tornadoes to the Wizard himself.

This was simply great theatre as well as flamboyantly-told narrative ballet, and inclusive to all. Webre, a self-confessed ‘kid person’, always has a charming line in flora and fauna (here grasshoppers, poppy seeds and gems); his Munchkins stepped straight out of a child’s paint box (or Renaissance courtiers as reimagined by Christian Lacroix on a more than usually exuberant day).

My only quibble really is that the last 15 minutes or so felt quite rushed (the discovery of the Wizard-Imposter and return home were sadly brief), but still, I think, Webre’s best recent ballet, and one, I suspect, that will charm ballet goers.

*****