Review/interview: Ballet Memphis’, ‘the Wizard of Oz’

Last weekend, Ballet Memphis visited St. Louis and the Touhill Performing Arts Center to share their production of the beloved American fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz’. Choreographed by Steven McMahon, the show was filled with heart, smart ideas, and the familiar homey feel that comes with a classic.

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The show opened with a drab farm scene, perfectly foreshadowing the character development to come. Storytelling was largely at work in the choreography, allowing moments for caricature-like pantomime amidst wonderful dance sequences that kept the pace moving. Each character had distinctive movement quality and vocabulary- Dorothy was youthful and dreamy in both petite allegro and adagio, the Tin Man rigid, the Lion jumpy and flamboyant. The choreography recaptured moments of humor and fright directly from the movie and uniquely established each character. If anything, the choreography was pretty standard ballet text-book. While it was most certainly musical, humorous, and established the story, it was not overwhelmingly inventive.

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The lead dancers fully embodied their characters and the story but still provided moments to revel in truly stunning dancing. Virginia Pilgrim as Dorothy was perfect in each line, gorgeous in each arabesque, and is one of the few dancers in the world that can make socks with red pointe shoes look stunning. (Amazing arches must be a prerequisite for this casting). Travis Bradley as the Scarecrow was charming with supple, seamless transitions in more modern movement. Amidst all of the humor provided by Kendall G. Britt Jr as the lion, one could catch a stunning suspended attitude devant. Each dancer was a testament to the beauty of classical training. The only let-down was the lack of expression in the corps of Poppies. While one or two looked dreamlike and lovely, most were blank in the face. The shortest brunette also held every single arabesque a second longer than everyone else, which was a little distracting. Every dancer was so technically good that it would have been nice to see their skills displayed more profoundly. A set of fouettes from the Wicked Witch, a series of toe hops from Glinda, some beats from the Lion would have shown the dancers off. While the aim of the production may be to retell the tale, one must consider that this is a story of color and fantasy to the highest degree. It therefore would better serve the talents of the company and the overwhelming delight of ballet to show the hardest and most fabulous things that are possible. The one-handed broom catch from the Wicked Witch was pretty admirable, though. I certainly couldn’t do that.

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In a story made famous by a fashion statement (the ruby red slippers) the costumes lived up to the hype. The Wicked Witch’s dress was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen and goes on my list of best green costumes ever made. The peachy colored tutus worn by the Poppies were especially gorgeous. Many stunning visual moments came from sets and lighting, the audience letting out an audible ‘ooo!’ at first glimpse into the Emerald City. The rainbow effect of lighting the floor as Dorothy stepped into Oz was pure magic, and the projected shadow of the Wizard on the backdrop was ingenious as it was mysterious. The music was a bit of a mish-mash, mostly enjoyable, but sometimes far too quiet especially during the Flying Monkey scene. It is possible that this was done in consideration of the younger members of the audience, in order to not be too scary.

The Wizard of Oz was a perfect family friendly show with a colorful well-paced story. While it is possible to call the choreography a little tame, it was perhaps appropriate to retell a classic tale with a classic movement vocabulary. It was a lovely introduction to ballet for young audiences filled with visual tricks and wonders, and danced wonderfully for those already over the rainbow about ballet.

Another aspect of the show great for young and old audiences alike was the representation from talented young St. Louis dancers specifically chosen from COCA (Center of Creative Arts). I had the great pleasure of interviewing one such local dancer (with some added help from Mom) on the her Wizard of Oz experience .

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JR: What is your name and how old are you?

VS: My name is Victoria Scheers and I am nine years old.

JR: Which parts did you dance in the performance?

VS: I was a munchkin and then a child in the Emerald City.

JR: Wow! How were you chosen for those roles?

VS (Mom, Amy Scheers, helped with this answer): The children were cast exclusively from COCA based on teacher recommendations and height. They come from three classes, beginning ballet 4, intermediate 1, and 2.

JR: Did you have a favorite role between the two?

VS: I liked both but I loved the dancing for the munchkins; we did a lot of jumping and I liked the costumes. They looked like different bugs and flowers and had a lot of colors. My costume had a blue flower for a hat.

JR: Did everyone get to choose their costume? Was there a ‘most popular’ costume in the group?

VS: We didn’t choose, it was based on our height. Everyone liked the shortest girl, Sophie’s costume. It was pink and really tiny.

JR: What were rehearsals like before the show?

VS: Miss Christine (Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal) taught us the choreography. At first it was pretty hard, but it got easier the more we practised. Then we rehearsed with Mr. McMahon. He would give us corrections when we did something wrong but he was always nice. (Mom chimed in how encouraging McMahon was to the group).

JR: Was it fun to be backstage?

VS: Yes, it was fun. We mostly stayed in the dressing room until about ten or fifteen minutes before we had to go on and then we would put on our costumes.

JR: Did you have a chance to meet any of the dancers from Ballet Memphis?

VS: Yes, they were really nice. We had partners for the Emerald City. And we met the big characters when they would come to the dressing room to tell us ‘good job’.

JR: What was the most fun thing about this experience?

VS: Performing. The stage is really big.

JR: If you could have been any part besides your own in the show, which character would you want to be?

VS: Either of the witches because of their costumes and the dancing.

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Thanks so much to Victoria and Amy for the interview, and congratulations to all on a wonderful performance!

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