As the theatre of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House filled with guests of Colorado Ballet on the evening of February 2, 2019, a high definition projection of a green storm swirled about the grand drape, replacing the classically climbing red curtain with a hypnotically rounded black and white proscenium. Violins swelled as the orchestra tuned in. The house lights dimmed and the audience fell silent and attentive. From the quiet rose the whistling sound of wind ushering in the overture as Adam Flatt conducted the Colorado Ballet Orchestra. The curtain lifted to reveal a gray Kansas scene including a topsy-turvy farmhouse and a curvy windmill. The shape of this first set demonstrates the warped tone of the story about to unfold as the stage is dusted with muted shades of gray which will serve to increase the contrast between dull Kansas and the wonderful Land of Oz.
We meet first the farmhands, cleverly costumed to foreshadow the characters that Dorothy will befriend along her journey down the Yellow Brick Road. It is, at its core, a prairie scene. Toto canters into the scene, shocking and delighting audience members as they realize that he is being operated by puppeteer Benjamin Rose. The cascade of surprises that comprise this show is triggered by Toto’s entrance, designed by Nicholas Mahon, and continues when the unlikable neighbor rides in on an actual bicycle. Composer Matthew Pierce brilliantly incorporates a bicycle bell in the sauntering, villainous theme that emerges with tubas and a jazzy drum beat.
Dorothy, danced by Dana Benton, lifts into the sky as the house is pulled apart around her. Flag work is utilized to give a richer texture to the tornado, and the bicycle makes a stunning return in a humorous nod to the iconic imagery of the original story. Giant humorous animal puppets float through the sky. Then, with a simple set of Dorothy on her bed, she rises and steps through a door, officially arriving in the Land of Oz.
The quiet stage suddenly explodes with color and movement as Glinda the Good Witch of the North, performed by Chandra Kuykendall, floats down from the rafters, welcoming Dorothy and Toto to Munchkinland. Neon colors and psychedelic patterns adorn the corps as they perform for Dorothy. The contorting and gravity defying lifts in this scene are higher than ever, seemingly drawing inspiration from Cirque du Soleil. The music is buoyant and springy in Munchkinland, until Wicked Witch of the West, Morgan Buchanan, interrupts the celebrations. She is illuminated under a green spotlight when her anthem returns. In pursuit of the ruby slippers, she is enraged when they magically appear on Dorothy’s feet. Following the Witch’s menacing departure, the Munchkins show Dorothy the way to the Yellow Brick Road. It is a versatile upwardly curved set piece that is repeatedly climbed, moved, and climbed again to demonstrate the distance traveled. Further, it is embodied by dancers cast as the “Yellow Brick Roadies”, who are costumed in all yellow, brought to life by golden flaps like hundreds of sticky notes that diversify the texture of their movement.
Along the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, played by Nicolas Pelletier. The Scarecrow is tossed about by the Roadies, making him seem weightless and at times, formless. The new friends travel together until they find themselves in a grove of massive trees, yet another testament to this ballet’s unusual ability to occupy the vertical plane of the stage. Atop the two story skirts of these trees are perched dancers whose arms hold up the branches of the apple trees. In this grove, the friends happen upon a Tin Man. As they oil his joints, the trees come alive with him shifting the branches all about. Jubilant prop play ensues as the trees throw apples down at the characters.
As their journey continues, the travelers are introduced to the lion, who greets them to a jazzy waltz. The corps returns as poppies to send Dorothy and her friends to sleep. The music takes a turn for Eastern influences; the dancers are costumed in rounded hats ideal for dual imagery as poppy flowers and rice hats. The First Act ends at the closed gates of Oz.
When the curtain rises on the Second Act, Oz is revealed as a high tone swing-disco scene. The bustle of Oz gives way to the Emerald Ballerina and a return to the traditional in a virtuosic, romantic pas de duex driven by the establishment and dissolution of partnered lines. The pas de deux is a treat that concludes perhaps too soon, in an act which altogether feels a bit rushed. The audience quickly meets the illusory Wizard who demands the Wicked Witch’s broomstick, and then suddenly Dorothy is once again being lifted up into the air, this time in the arms of a winged monkey. The witch’s castle is an ultraviolet vision. The visually rich set with thoughtful lighting design houses but one scene that sees the Witch defeated for good. Finally, after unveiling the truth about the power within each of them, Dorothy clicks those ruby ballet slippers a lucky three times and wakes to find herself in her Kansas bed with Toto by her side. She jumps up and down on the blankets, clearly savoring the sweetness of home and reflecting on the mystery of her adventures. This is the ballet that Colorado audiences need right now. It is cosmopolitan, mixed media, all about adventure, and it is full to the brim with delightful surprises.
Maggie Ramseur: Maggie Ramseur is a long time dancer and teacher in the southwest Denver area. Her background includes training in ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, and hip hop dance styles. As a member of the CU Buff Gold Dance Team for the 2017 season, she performed and competed on a national stage. In addition to a long history with competition dance, Maggie has also studied dance in pop culture and the history of modern dance under the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She strives to remain active as a student, a teacher, and an advocate for dance in the community.