Dancing down the Yellow Brick Road

Mathieu Young
Ballet Memphis company member Rachel Shumake performs the role of Dorothy Gale in Steven McMahon’s “Wizard of Oz,” opening Saturday at the Orpheum theater.

Mathieu Young Ballet Memphis company member Rachel Shumake performs the role of Dorothy Gale in Steven McMahon’s “Wizard of Oz,” opening Saturday at the Orpheum theater.

Ballet Memphis' The Wizard of Oz

Performances at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Orpheum theater, 203 S. Main. Ticket: $5-$72. Call 901-737-7322.

Since taking up residence in Playhouse on the Square a few seasons ago, Ballet Memphis has, in both physical and aesthetic ways, scaled down to fit the smaller space.

But the company up-scales this weekend as it moves its final main stage show of the season to the Orpheum theater, where classical-style ballet can bloom in full.

Think of it as a journey from small-town Kansas to the sprawling Emerald City.

“The Wizard of Oz,” a full-length ballet by associate choreographer Steven McMahon, returns to the repertoire for the third time in seven years.

As a curtain-warmer, the company will also perform Act III of “Napoli,” an 1842 ballet by August Bournonville that is considered one of the finest examples of Romantic-style technique, full of folksy yet difficult flourishes.

McMahon recently discussed how he adapted the classic story by L. Frank Baum into one of Ballet Memphis’ most popular works.

Q: Was it hard to decide upon a version of the “Wizard of Oz”?

A: The book is so different than the movie. I studied both of them. But the book is actually very dark. And I knew the movie backward and forwards. I wanted my version based on the one more people knew. We have little girls showing up wearing gingham outfits and ruby slippers, so I thought the iconic visuals worked better.

Q: What’s more iconic than “Somewhere over the Rainbow?” Why use different music?

A: Well, it’s a ballet and not musical theater. When I did this seven years ago, I spent a whole year compiling the music. We talk about the “Wizard of Oz” being the great American musical, but ironically all five of the composers I use are British. Mostly Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Q: Aaron Copland wasn’t American enough?

A: Oh, I listened to him. And Bernstein, and a lot of others. I listened to everything. But it just worked out that the music I found best fit the narrative.

Q: Has it changed in seven years?

A: Every time we do it, we change things around because the company itself changes. The first time we did it at GPAC (Germantown Performing Arts Centre), it was very skeletal. The second time, we invested in sets and lighting. Now we have all of that plus more bodies on stage. I think it’s an easy story to like. It makes people feel good. You don’t have to work hard (mentally) when you come to the ballet. You just sit, watch and enjoy.

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