A new ballet with an original score isn’t quite as rare an event as a house falling on a witch, but it is an exciting chance to shape a fresh telling of the beloved story.
L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” set in Kansas, sparked 13 sequels, story spin-offs, and multiple adaptations on stage and film.
The newest production, “The Wizard of Oz” by choreographer Septime Webre, receives its world premiere on Friday with the Kansas City Ballet.
“We kind of found inspiration in unexpected corners,” Webre says, drawing from brash jazz, grooving disco, glam rock guitar, country fiddling, Middle Eastern timbres, and new wave.
Matthew Pierce wrote the music, performed by the Kansas City Symphony. This is Webre and Pierce’s fifth project together, which includes “Alice (In Wonderland),” performed by Kansas City Ballet in 2014.
Pierce likens writing the ballet’s music to writing a movie script.
“In ballet, unlike film, where does the story happen? It happens in the music,” Pierce says. “My whole thing is about making sure that the narratives and the psychology of the narrative is progressing with good pacing and good timing."
Creating the score is an intensive process. Webre plots out the ballet’s action, based on Baum’s original novel and the 1939 film. Then Pierce and Webre workshop for days, listening together to find inspiration for each of the characters.
After identifying the musical influences, Pierce synthesizes the ideas they toss around, improvising on violin to concoct each moment and creating a motif for each character, even Toto.
"Septime has this really broad and fantastical imagination and he'll come up with associations,” says Pierce says of Webre.
Webre says of Pierce: “He’s got this beautiful classical sensibility. He’s — in the best sense of the world — an old-fashioned composer, in that there are melodies and they are very danceable.”
Pierce sends recordings to Webre and they begin a volley of edits and suggestions, until the ballet is mapped out musically.
“It takes about six to eight months to build the score. And that’s well before a single step is danced,” says Webre. “Once the score is done, then I create the dance.”
"That's when you get down to the nitty-gritty,” says Pierce.
In rehearsal, the dancers work from recordings of Pierce, usually on solo violin with some percussion and harmonizing strings.
"A very important thing about being a dance composer is that you've got to respond to how a dancer is moving. If you're not sensing any movement in the person who is listening to your music, you better come up with a different idea,” Pierce says.
Once rehearsals begin, Pierce knows he is always on call to make edits. That means constant communication and fast turn-around for fixes.
“I asked him at about 8 one night, ‘Look, can you write something? I need something by 11 o’clock tomorrow morning,’ and by 10:55 the next morning there was a new section in my mailbox,” says Webre. “I used it in rehearsal and it was perfect.”
"You just hope, as you are moving through the narratives, that you have threads that continue to flow through,” Pierce says. “That's the magical part about writing a full-length ballet. Sometimes you are in the middle or at the end and you think, 'Oh, that's why I thought of that a month ago,' and now I can connect it here.’"
Pierce arrived in Kansas City on Tuesday, working with Webre and Kansas City Ballet’s music director Ramona Pansegrau to put the final touches on the production.
"The process is still very much up to the last minute, I'll be taping stuff into the score, I'm sure,” Pierce says with a laugh.
Pierce and Webre used a similarly collaborative approach with each of their projects, including “Alice (In Wonderland).” With more than 100 performances from 11 companies, that ballet has enjoyed whirlwind success with audiences around the world.
With “Alice,” Pierce, who also did the orchestrations, continues to refine the music — he’s revised the score six times. He’s also written a 14-player version for strings and percussion, which he conducts for some productions, performing from the podium as violin soloist, too.
After Kansas City, the ballet travels to Denver and Winnipeg (it is a co-production between Kansas City Ballet, Colorado Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet) and then, the hope is, to other companies around the world, following the path that “Alice” has traveled.
"You are starting to see a thread, probably,” Pierce says of the two productions and their iconic main characters.
“Alice and Dorothy, one goes down the rabbit hole, the other goes up the tornado, and then you have these wonderful fantastical places, where you can do these outrageous things.”
Kansas City Ballet presents “The Wizard of Oz,” October 12-14 and 17-21 at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri 64108.