Fate brings Wizard of Oz to NZ

By Dionne Christian

Dionne Christian talks to the RNZB's new artistic director about the disaster that led to Oz being launched in NZ and how his childhood fuelled his vision
The Royal New Zealand Ballet's The Wizard of Oz.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet's The Wizard of Oz.

It should have been one of the biggest days of Francesco Ventriglia and Gianluca Falaschi's respective careers.

After a successful dress rehearsal, Ventriglia - a ballet dancer, choreographer and then director of MaggioDanza (Opera Dance Theatre) in Florence - was about to see a childhood dream come true. Designer Falaschi was excited to see audience reaction to the sets and costumes he'd designed for a bold new re-telling of The Wizard of Oz.

But, instead of taking their seats at the opening night of the world premiere, the men stood outside the theatre shedding tears of despair rather than joy. A small portion of the ceiling had collapsed, meaning all productions were cancelled for the foreseeable future.

With no chance of re-mounting the production at such short notice, Falaschi's lavish costumes and props were packed away; Ventriglia could only move on to the next project. But he never let go of his hope to see The Wizard of Oz as a ballet.

Ventriglia's journey to Oz has taken him down a long and winding road ending, or perhaps beginning, in New Zealand. It's not often we get an international premiere of a story ballet, let alone one based on a best-loved tale but an accident of fate has seen that happen.

After MaggioDanza closed in 2013, Ventriglia successfully applied for the position of artistic director for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, arriving at the end of 2014. Discussions about the 2016 season - last year's had already been programmed by outgoing artistic director Ethan Stiefel - turned to whether the company should perform a story ballet (such as Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and, perhaps most famous of all, Swan Lake), which are enormously popular.

Seeing an opportunity, Ventriglia suggested maybe they might like to consider a project he'd previously worked on: The Wizard of Oz. So, six years after its debut season was planned, he and Falaschi have finally seen their Oz dance on to the stage, delighting ballet-loving New Zealanders who have the rare treat of being the first in the world to see a premiere of a major new work.

"But it's not exactly as it would have been," says Ventriglia, "because I am a different man now and I needed to extend it and re-work things. So Gianluca and I started the online meetings to get things moving and to take it further.

"When we saw it on stage, we looked at each other and said, 'Finally, it has happened and finally it is real'. And, yes, I cried."

Like many, Ventriglia heard The Wizard of Oz as a child but the story was far more personal for him. Aged just 5, he spent months in a northern Italian hospital being treated for a skin condition. His mother stayed with him, but they were away from home on the Amalfi Coast so fellow patients and their parents became friends.

To take the children's minds off their respective predicaments, entertainment was provided by way of musicians and dancers; they still had to do school lessons. Most afternoons, Ventriglia's mother would wheel him to an isolation ward where a little girl lay gravely ill and could be seen only through a glass window.

His mother talked to her parents; he smiled and waved at the girl and then, one day, she wasn't there.

"They told me it was fine because she had gone to Oz," he recalls, "and that is when I first heard the story. When I recovered and went home, my parents asked me what would I like for a present to celebrate - a new bike, a new toy - but I said I wanted ballet lessons."

The rest of his life shaped by that experience, Ventriglia's Wizard starts with Dorothy not caught up in a tornado but lying in a coma in a hospital bed with an anxious Uncle Henry (played by Sir Jon Trimmer) staying close. What unfolds is the fevered dreams of a young girl trying to wake from a deep sleep.

"I wanted to add my own thoughts, my own touches," says Ventriglia who's made the Wizard a bit of a cad and based a number of the characters on people he's seen in life.

"One day on the train, I saw a young guy with dreadlocks and tattoos, and I knew I had found my inspiration for the Lion."

It means Ventriglia's story leans more toward the darker L. Frank Baum book, rather than the 1939 Hollywood movie with Judy Garland as Dorothy. Taking his lead from this, Falaschi sought to hint at the era the story and film appeared in but to make sets and costumes blending memories and remembrances of fantastical childhood dreams. "First, I build a world and then I put inside the characters who live there. I have transformed normal objects into fantasy ones and partly that was from children's book illustrations where things are made magical."

His world of Oz features bold colours: the Art Deco-style Emerald City is the most verdant green you'll see on stage, and dancers clad in deep red gowns form a field of gently rippling poppies. It's all a treat, but the realm of the Princess of Porcelain takes the everyday and makes simple cups and saucers magical and elegant. Dancers in snow-white tutus, edged with the china-blue patterns found on fine porcelain, embody cups and saucers, moving as if they really were being picked up by someone enjoying a high tea.

Falaschi says the inspiration came from childhood afternoon teas with his grandmother who also had a canary in a cage. His memory of the little yellow bird in its cage inspired - in a roundabout way - the Wicked Witch of the West's striking coffin-like cage, from which she breaks free but is always drawn back towards.

Glinda the Good wears a gossamer gown emblazoned with delicate paper butterflies; occasionally a giant butterfly rises from the stage. As Dorothy explores the world, growing and learning, her gingham pinafore changes colour to reflect her discoveries and each new place she happens upon.

There's even a gingham tutu - and if you ask dancer Lucy Green whether she ever expected to dance in such a costume, as the lead in a world premiere season, she'll smile and graciously admit most certainly not.

"When I first heard about it, I thought it was a great idea because it's a story with such wide appeal and it would be challenging and fun for us as dancers as well the audience," says Green, chosen for Dorothy because of the youthful quality she brings to dance.

She agrees the story told in the book is different to the film, but believes this, coupled with Ventriglia's own interpretation, makes it richer and more layered. Learning to tap dance has been one of the challenges Green has faced. She describes it as involving movements and body mechanics opposite to those of ballet.

"It is certainly demanding and Dorothy is on stage for a lot of the time, and when she is not, there are the costume changes. But I like it when it's busy because there's no time for me to overthink and that can be a danger because if you think too much about how you are going to portray something, it can become fake."

So is it what Ventriglia and Falaschi imagined?

Says Falaschi: "I feel like I have walked down the Yellow Brick Road and gone into another world. I feel like Dorothy in this moment; I have travelled to the other side of the world - to New Zealand for the first time - and it is all excitement. It has been a long journey, but a beautiful one."

• Dionne Christian was a guest of the RNZB and the Museum Art Hotel, Wellington to see The Wizard of Oz.

Ballet

What: The Wizard of Oz

Where and when: Rotorua Civic Theatre, tonight and tomorrow; ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland, June 2-5

- NZ Herald

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