The magic of “The Wizard of Oz” lives on
For acclaimed choreographer Septime Webre, it seems as though life has been lived on the road to Oz.
Like most American children, Webre was a fan of the classic film “The Wizard of Oz,” starring Judy Garland, but he and his siblings also read all of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. As a teenager, he created a marionette version of the classic American fairy tale.
Webre’s love for the Oz mythos is now culminating in his ballet version of “The Wizard of Oz,” which will receive its world premiere by the Kansas City Ballet Oct. 12 at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. The ballet, a joint production with Colorado Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, will then have eight more performances Oct. 13-21.
Webre, artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, is the seventh son in a family of eight brothers and one sister. His mother was Cuban and his father American. Webre’s six older brothers were born and grew up in Cuba, where his father had a sugar plantation in the middle of the island.
“My six older brothers grew up on that sugar plantation,” Webre said. “My mother was from Havana, but my family left in the early ’60s during the Cuban revolution.”
Webre’s father designed sugar mills, so after leaving Cuba, the family moved to places where there was sugar: the Bahamas, south Texas and even Cote D’Ivoire in French West Africa.
“It was a pretty eclectic experience,” Webre said. “Until the age of 12, I grew up on a small island in the Bahamas. It was a very small and tight community. There was no television, so we spent a lot of time on the beach building fantasy sand castles and reading books. The ‘Wizard of Oz’ series was one of our favorites. So I knew the books very well and about once year, we’d see the film. The story and the characters always captivated our imagination.”
When he was 12, Webre and his family moved to south Texas. Webre recalled when he and his siblings crossed the border to Mexico and purchased a whole suite of Mexican puppets for 99 cents each.
“There was borracho the drunkard, the bandito, the sexy woman,” Webre said. “We spent the summer recostuming them in the most extravagant way. We built a puppet house and painted about five backdrops, and we put together about a 30-minute production of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It was actually quite professional. We toured it for a summer to nursing homes and orphanages and church bazaars throughout south Texas. It was very Von Trapp Family.”
A few years later, when he was 16, Webre created another version of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I was conducting a youth program with the Texas School for the Blind and a service organization, which supports families with kids with Down Syndrome,” Webre said. “I produced an adaptation of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ that was about 30 minutes long. The principal roles were played by blind and sighted teenagers and the Munchkins were all kids with Down Syndrome. We ran this production two summers in a row.”
Webre’s ballet version draws on his rich memories and abiding love for Baum’s fairy tale.
“This ballet has been incubating for a lifetime,” he said.
The marionettes of Webre’s childhood plays are the sophisticated puppetry of Nicholas Mahon in this ballet version. The Quebec-born Mahon, who created the mythical creatures for the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, is bringing his vivid imagination and technical wizardry to the Webre’s ballet.
“There are some astounding puppets for the winged monkeys,” Webre said. “The winged monkeys populate the sky the way that jet fighters might zoom overhead. It’s like hundreds of jet fighters in formation. But my favorite puppet is probably Toto. The puppet is so gorgeous and capable of expression that he almost seems human.”
Devon Carney, artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, is also amazed by the verisimilitude of the puppets.
“Sometimes, I swear I’m looking at a real dog,” Carney said. “These puppets are very large items that are flying around the stage. Nicholas Mahon has come up with some really great ideas.”
Carney previously worked with Webre on his other eye-popping fairy tale, “Alice in Wonderland,” with Cincinnati Ballet and Kansas City Ballet.
“Septime is a very creative guy who has ideas popping out of his head faster than you can imagine” Carney said. “Having worked with him on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and knowing how wonderful and fun it was, when he made it clear he wanted to do ‘Oz,’ it didn’t take me long to say yes.”
Webre cites one other influence on his ballet version of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I’m a huge fan of ‘The Wiz,’” Webre said. ‘The Wiz’ influences me in that it set all the characters into pop culture. It was funky and of the moment. And our costume designs have a kind of contemporary chic. The production has a kind of funkiness that will appeal to audiences today.”
7:30 p.m. Oct. 12, 13, 17, 18, 19 and 20 and 2 p.m. Oct. 14, 20 and 21. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $34-$134. 816-931-8993 or www.kcballet.org.
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.