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Paving a new Yellow Brick Road

Tulsa Ballet’s ‘Dorothy and the Prince of Oz’ premieres this month

Tulsa Ballet rehearses

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a mini-nation to create an original ballet. Such is the intensive collaboration for Tulsa Ballet’s highly anticipated world premiere, “Dorothy and the Prince of Oz,” opening at the Tulsa PAC on Feb. 10 for four performances.

As all stage productions are a team effort, “Oz” was created by Edwaard Liang, choreographer and artistic director of BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, in conjunction with puppeteer and set designer Basil Twist, composer Oliver Peter Graber, costume designer Mark Zaponne, Tulsa Ballet staff, production assistants and the corps de ballet ensemble.

“The project began about four years back when I met with Tulsa Ballet Artistic Director Marcello Angelini to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a new full-length ballet in honor of the Ballet’s 60th anniversary season,” Liang said.

There are story ballets aplenty—classics like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella” are constantly reproduced. Liang’s ambition was to develop a new story with similar appeal. The notion of “Oz” arose early in the discussions and Liang was sold. 

“I liked the idea,” he said. “My only concern was that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is so iconic.”

Elements from several “Oz” books in L. Frank Baum’s fourteen-volume series have been woven together to create a story-driven libretto that honors the beloved film yet will be fresh to audience members.

For the visual world of the ballet Liang turned to puppeteer and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Basil Twist, who designed the sets and puppets with an eye toward mobility and spectacle. 

“I like the sense that things are animated and recommended that we have the puppeteers visible, the dancers we call the ‘Otherz’ who do the puppetry,” Twist said.

This is only the fourth ballet on which Twist has worked, though he has crafted scenery and puppets for theatre and opera throughout the world. 

“It’s thrilling to have an opportunity to create fantastical creatures,” he said. “The king and queen have a pair of ‘stone dogs’ as their pets.”

The project is built on an organic approach where all the artistic elements have evolved throughout rehearsals. Liang even choreographs on the spot. 

“I start with the music; I listen to it and live it,” he said. “I don’t have preconceived notions of the dancers’ abilities, I want them to be part of the process.” 

Liang compares choreography to couture: everything should be shaped and sculpted around the dancers. 

“There’s something amazing about letting an artist fly,” he observed.

Composer Oliver Peter Graber wrote original music to connect segments of existing music, something composers are often asked to do. 

“Music for ‘Oz’ does not represent my personal style but is based upon elements used by the composers we selected,” Graber said. 

Portions have been drawn from composers such as Bela Bartok, Maurice Ravel and Edvard Grieg. 

“Ninety percent of the evening consists of music from the 19th century,” Graber continued. “The best result is achieved when the audience cannot hear the ‘new’ music I’ve written.”

Everyone is focused on blending the iconic and the new. Costume designer Mark Zaponne observed that his ambition is to suggest classic images from “The Wizard of Oz” while creating fresh looks. 

“Costumes from previously created ballets are usually rented,” he said. “These costumes are being built expressly for our dancers.”

In the past, Madalina Stoica, who will dance the part of Dorothy, learned traditional roles only from videos. 

“I always wondered how they felt when they created the ballet,” she said. “I think it’s amazing now that we are part of the process; they are creating the movement on us.”

Cavan Conley, who performs the titular Prince, concurred. 

“It’s great to have something that is your own; it’s your role,” Conley said.

“Sometimes we’re in the studio with Edwaard and Basil and discover that something isn’t working, so we figure it out together. That’s awesome.”

“Awesome” may well be the expression for audiences experiencing this world premiere. At one rehearsal, the dancers, actors and “Otherz” worked a special effect from an early sequence of the ballet. Everyone seemed anxious but then humans, puppets and set elements suddenly coalesced to create a spectacular moment that generated spontaneous applause and broad smiles from the entire company. 

Ballet companies around the globe are keenly interested in this project. It is likely to enter the canon of story-driven ballets for many years to come. 

“Dorothy and the Prince of Oz” runs Feb. 10-12 at Tulsa Performing Arts Center. Tickets at tulsaballet.org.

For more from Michael, read his review of Heller Theatre’s “In Love and Warcraft.”