The Wizard of Oz, Royal New Zealand Ballet

St James Theatre, Wellington, May 4.

The Wizard of Oz has had quite a journey on its way to Royal New Zealand Ballet and the St James Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. The ballet was originally conceived for Florence’s MaggioDanza and got all the way to the dress rehearsal. Then the ceiling of the theatre fell in and opening night had to be abandoned. The work never made it to the Florence stage. Francesco Ventriglia, who choreographed The Wizard of Oz and was also MaggioDanza’s artistic director at the time, doesn’t mention in his RNZB program note that the bad luck in Florence continued. MaggioDanza operated under the umbrella of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and when drastic cost-cutting was needed, a decision was taken in 2013 to close the dance company. Finito.

But it’s an ill wind and all that. Ventriglia was unexpectedly at liberty to consider moving to RNZB when it was looking for an artistic director to succeed Ethan Stiefel, the American former dancer and choreographer who opted not to continue in Wellington after his initial three years was up. Ventriglia arrived in late 2014 to run the national ballet company so it was too late for him to have any impact on repertoire for 2015 (Stiefel programmed last year). In one sense, therefore, 2016 is Ventriglia’s debut. He started with a dynamic triple bill, Speed of Light, and has followed up with what he can legitimately call a world premiere. One of his own creations, The Wizard of Oz – now extended from one act to two – finally got that opening night.

Lucy Green and Jacob Chown

Lucy Green and Jacob Chown in The Wizard of Oz. Photo: Evan Li

The Wellington audience liked what it saw, responding with lusty cheers and prolonged foot-stamping on the wooden floors of the St James.

As with many (most?) new story ballets it could do with some tweaking but already it is a delightful piece of fantasy with a warm, inviting young heroine. It’s gorgeous to look at too, in Gianluca Falaschi’s bold, witty design that makes dramatic use of colour. There is a sparkling Art Deco Emerald City awash with sequins, a poppy field embodied by bewitching women in sumptuous red gowns and the dazzling realm of the Princess of Porcelain (what Oz writer L. Frank Baum called the Dainty China Country), with its women in crisp white tutus decorated with delicate china-blue tracery. A lovely touch is that Dorothy’s gingham pinafore changes hue to suit each new setting.

The choreography is vivid, flows swiftly and is well-tailored to each character, from the floppy, boneless undulations of the Scarecrow to the steely, stabbing legwork of the Wicked Witch. There are no fewer than nine meaty roles (one doubled) and seven featured parts for a company of 32: it’s a lot of dance. There’s no Aunt Em but Uncle Henry features at the beginning and end and gracefully provides a role for RNZB’s living treasure Sir Jon Trimmer, who has been associated with the company for nearly 60 years.

Ventriglia frames the story with a hospital scene in which Dorothy is ill. It’s not a new idea to be sure but effective enough as a device to start things moving without getting into cyclone territory. Multiple doors open, familiar characters arrive and Dorothy’s adventures in a dreamworld begin. And what of Toto? We have seen Dorothy in bed clutching a toy dog. Now, sweetly, she has a larger version of the stuffed animal to accompany her.

Dorothy and retinue go to the Emerald City, meet the Wizard (a handsome young man in an eye-boggling green suit), defeat the Wicked Witch, gain possession of the golden hat that gives Dorothy command over the Flying Monkeys and take a detour into the intoxicating poppy fields. All this is in the first half which, more than the second, would benefit from some adjustments to pacing and clearer connective tissue. It’s an episodic story but nevertheless could hang together more cogently. It’s not always entirely clear, for instance, what governs the Good Witch Glinda’s entrances, exits and interventions.

Balloon credit Evan Li

Lucy Green and William Fitzgerald. Photo: Evan Li

After interval Ventriglia complicates and deepens Dorothy’s quest to find her way home by giving her a taste of grown-up life (thoughts of The Nutcracker are inevitable here). In a lengthy scene in the Kingdom of Porcelain the Prince and Princess display their glamour and sophistication in a formal series of classical variations and in a kind of dream within her dream, Dorothy enjoys a pas de deux with the dashing Prince. Thanks to Gianluca Falaschi she does so in a gingham tutu. Divine. Back in the Emerald City, more experience awaits Dorothy when she dances yearningly with the Wizard, although as we have seen he is a man who doesn’t mind sharing his gifts around. A slightly earlier pas de deux for the Wizard and Glinda shows the two to be quite, ahem, close. A nice touch is to have Prince and Wizard danced by the same man. It’s not exactly textbook L. Frank Baum but it’s enticing ballet.

Ventriglia choreographed to an all-Poulenc score, a piano-heavy patchwork of movements and individual pieces put together with the assistance of RNZB pianist Michael Pansters. It includes parts of the composer’s ballet Les Biches, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska (1923), and a surprising use of the Organ Concerto (1938). At times the music feels at odds with the movement – the delicately dressed Glinda bourées on to crashing piano chords – and the thickness of some orchestration is too weighty for the purpose to which its put, or at least that’s how it sounded at the opening. Some blame can undoubtedly attach to the use of recordings; unfortunately RNZB doesn’t have the services of a live orchestra for this ballet and it’s a real loss. Many nuances go begging and on opening night the lovely and apposite solo piano work Melancholie (1940) for Dorothy’s pas de deux with the Wizard suffered from being amplified too loudly.

The Ryman Healthcare Season of The Wizard of Oz, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

William Fitzgerald as the Prince of Porcelain. Photo: Stephen A’Court

In the opening night cast Lucy Green was a natural for Dorothy. Her unaffected, modest air gives her dancing a very attractive openness. It never, ever looks like hard work even when it is (and she was onstage a lot). Abigail Boyle was the beautifully poised Glinda and Mayu Tanigaito the high-flying Witch of the West. Her elevation is something else. William Fitzgerald (Wizard/Prince of Porcelain) is being given big chances very early in his career and is very much a danseur noble in the making. Laura Jones was an alluring Princess of Porcelain and Loughlan Prior (Scarecrow), Massimo Margaria (Tin Man) and Jacob Chown (Lion) were Dorothy’s invaluable companions on the Yellow Brick Road.

The Wizard of Oz ends in Wellington in May 8 then tours to eight New Zealand cities.

Francesco Ventriglia and Royal New Zealand Ballet

A year into his artistic directorship, Francesco Ventriglia talks about his goals for Royal New Zealand Ballet and his first program for the company

 “My life is where I can have a theatre, where I can have dancers, where I can have a space to express my creativity. I don’t care if it’s Milan or Florence or Wellington or New York.”

Not everyone would mention Wellington, New Zealand, in the same breath as New York and Milan, but Francesco Ventriglia is more than happy to. And why not? We’re sitting in one of the New Zealand capital’s fine restaurants, drinking excellent local wine and talking, amongst other things, about the impending Royal New Zealand Ballet’s world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (It opened in late August.) Life is good.

Francesco Ventriglia, Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Francesco Ventriglia, RNZB’s artistic director. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Then there are all the things he wants to do as the company’s newest artistic director, a position he took up late last year after former American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel decided to return to the US after three years at the helm. Even when seated Ventriglia throws out megawatts of energy, face alight with enthusiasm and wreathed in smiles. He talks a million to the dozen in charmingly accented English which he says is improving but is already excellent – not entirely idiomatic, to be sure, but pouring out fluently and vividly. (“I feel more comfortable now, even with the Kiwi accent, which is a little bit different,” he says.)

Essentially it comes down to this. When he arrived in New Zealand he was warmly welcomed. People liked his outgoing nature and his vibrant optimism. “They like me and I really like them. I try to put things on the table in a very honest way, no strategy. I am what I am, I’m here. We can work and make the future. Everyone gives me the space to do that. So I feel free.”

Lucy Green, an Australian dancer with the company, says Ventriglia is very passionate. “You really get that enthusiasm and energy every time he’s in the studio. He loves to push us very, very hard, and that’s exactly what we need. He’s always telling us: ‘more, more; more body, more emotion, more heart’, which is really lovely. ‘More turnout, more quality.’ He loves quality. I love the way he describes things – ‘be royal, be expensive’. From day one he was fully here and fully committed. ‘I’m here for everyone and I’m here for the long haul.’ That’s really nice.”

Ventriglia inherited the 2015 season from Stiefel, including the gift of the full-length Scarlett that proved to be a very big hit and which will feature on RNZB’s 2016 Asian tour (it is a co-production with Queensland Ballet, which will perform it in Brisbane early next year). The 2016 season, his first full program, was announced this week.

Sonia Looker and MacLean Hopper in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

He spent his first year getting know the dancers, bringing in a series of guest ballet masters and mistresses before deciding who he wants to hire permanently, and getting acquainted with other companies and dance directors in the region (The Australian Ballet’s David McAllister, Queensland Ballet’s Li Cunxin, Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela). “Very nice and open” is how he describes his early encounters and he is keen for connections, collaborations and exchanges in this part of the world as well as in Europe.

“New Zealand arrived at a moment of my life and career where I was really ready to jump into a new thing, a new energy, even in the dark a little bit,” he says. Ventriglia was working at the Bolshoi last year, staging his Boléro and Carmina Burana, when he got the message that RNZB was trying to get in touch with him. They called and said he was their choice to succeed Stiefel. He’d got the job.

Naturally he’d thought seriously about his application. The life of an artistic director is very different from that of a freelance choreographer who also occasionally likes to design sets and costumes. There’s time in that life for personal study, deep immersion in scores, lots of travel. But RNZB beckoned and he said yes. In Moscow, “at that moment I thought, that’s not my choice; it’s what life chooses for me”.

Ventriglia, who is in his mid-30s, made his dance career at La Scala. It was a good one. When he was just 19 Natalia Makarova came to stage her version of La Bayadère and chose him for the virtuoso Golden Idol solo; when he was even younger and newer to the company, William Forsythe hand-picked him to be in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. He danced Hilarion to Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle and appeared in ballets by Neumeier, Bejart, Preljocaj, Kylian, Mats Ek, Nureyev, “always in the lead role”. He retired at the early age of 31, becoming artistic directorship of Florence’s MaggioDanza. The company closed abruptly in 2013, a victim of funding cuts.

RNZB is in a happier situation as the country’s much-admired national ballet company. Ventriglia understands the importance. “What is great from my point of view is that the company can spread ballet culture through the country, from tiny, tiny cities to Auckland. This is a great, great responsibility.” There is also an imperative to tour internationally, “because it’s quite important to spread the New Zealand brand”. This year’s tour, from October 27 to early December, takes the production of Giselle created for the company by Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012 to the UK and (naturally) Italy, along with a mixed bill. “We do one tour a year, and we hope two in the future.”

Ventriglia is also keen for the company, which has 37 dancers (they are unranked), to be seen at festivals. “We could send just a group – 10 to 15 dancers – and the other group can dance here,” he says. “We can be present in the same moment in an international place and national place. That’s what I want to do. It’s great – a national company. National! It’s a big responsibility. It’s for all New Zealand, not just your city.”

The first festival in Ventriglia’s schedule is the 2016 New Zealand Festival, and it will be the first time in a dozen years that RNZB has appeared at the event. The program, called Speed of Light, is an exuberant one: In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated; Alexander Ekman’s Cacti and Andonis Foniadakis’s Selon désir, which is also being seen on this year’s northern hemisphere tour.

The year continues with a world premiere, Ventriglia’s family-friendly The Wizard of Oz, which was to have been seen in Florence but “between the dress rehearsal and the opening night the theatre was closed. So after five years the ballet will be reborn in New Zealand.” Giselle will again be seen on home soil, and the Asian tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will follow. Ventriglia also talks obliquely about a further project, something very big, but will give no details at this stage.

The RNZB dancers are an international lot – New Zealanders, of course; a handful of Australians; a group of Americans, part of the Stiefel era (they were all still there a year later despite Stiefel’s departure); and now some Italians. There are dancers from the UK, Japan and China. “Artists don’t have any passports. They don’t have any nationality. They are good artists or bad artists,” Ventriglia says robustly. “Dancers want to dance the right choreographers – Forsythe, Ekman, Naharin. If you have the quality you attract the dancers. If you have the best choreographers in the world the best dancers want to come.”

 Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2016 program

Speed of Light: Forsythe, Ekman, Foniadakis

The Wizard of Oz, Ventriglia

Giselle, Stiefel/Kobborg

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Scarlett