The Wizard of Oz creator Francesco Ventriglia - interviewby The Listener
A magical new ballet was inspired by a much-loved children’s tale.
Dorothy and the witches, wizards and enchanting friends from The Wizard of Oz have been given new life in the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s latest production – one that draws on shadows in the life story of the ballet’s creator, Francesco Ventriglia.
When Dorothy wakes up from her trip to Oz, she is not back in Kansas with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, rather she is in hospital recovering from a coma. Her exploits in Oz are coma-induced dreams.
Ventriglia, now 18 months into his role as artistic director of the RNZB, has taken on the role of “guest choreographer” and says the adaptation is drawn directly from his childhood. When he was five, he spent months in a children’s hospital. Close to his room was a girl of the same age who was seriously ill. One day he noticed she was no longer there and wanted to know where she had gone. His mother and his doctor told him the Wizard of Oz story to explain her death. “They said the girl was in Oz and had started a journey with friends, a lion, a scarecrow and a tin man. This story remained in my mind for a long time.”
The RNZB production follows the original 1900 Frank Baum children’s story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, rather than the Disney films. “I reread the book and wrote down my idea of the Lion, the Scarecrow and everyone.”
Ventriglia says rather than being a fantasy, the clear beginning and end reveals that Dorothy is in the real world. Her desire to return “home” does not mean to her childhood home in Kansas, but rather growing up, becoming a woman.
“My idea of this journey is that to ‘come back home’ means to wake up and become an adult and find yourself. Everyone is in the ballet – Dorothy, all her friends, little Toto – but in the background, it is very much me.”
Ventriglia says he loves creating dances for children. The Wizard of Oz ballet was first developed when he was director of the MaggioDanza ballet company in Florence in 2010. Problems with the theatre building meant the company had to evacuate on the eve of the opening night. Circumstances were never right for a remount.
“When I arrived in New Zealand and we started with the idea of a big family show, it jumped on the table. So we bought this production, with its incredible set and costumes, from Italy. We decided to expand it and recreate the ballet, so basically it is a new creation.”
He says the work is different from the Florence original and carries a strong influence from his time in New Zealand. “I enjoy the landscape and try to take inspiration from all I can see here. I work in the studio wearing this energy. I believe you need to eat the energy of the place where you create a ballet.”
The set design and costumes are by celebrated Italian opera designer Gianluca Falaschi. Ventriglia says the costumes have their own theatrical language.
“The Wizard of Oz is his first ballet. We have tried to put the dramaturgy in every costume so it can tell the story. They are very colourful, sparkly, and the set is incredibly energetic.
“It is like a magic box – every scene is a surprise, and you are in a different world.”
Likewise, the choreography has been specifically tailored to interpret each character with a specific dance vocabulary. “The Porcelain scene is a tutu ballet moment, it is classical; in the flying monkeys scene, I use more contemporary vocabulary. The first time that Glinda, Witch of the North, gives the red shoes to Dorothy, she does a tap dance. So the dancers who play Dorothy have had tap-dance classes for weeks.”
The score is a selection of Francis Poulenc’s works arranged by Ventriglia, with assistance from RNZB pianist Michael Pansters.
“I really love Poulenc and the flavour of French music of that time; it is perfect to tell this story. I have chosen all the best pieces I like, my greatest hits. I am very much a music person, all my creations start with the score. I studied the music for months before I arrived in the studio – it is on my iPad, iPhone. I listened to it and nothing else – from the shower in the morning to the night. In the studio I can sing every single note.”
The national tour of The Wizard of Oz begins in Wellington on May 4 and ends in Napier on June 12.
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