For Victoria Morgan, there’s no place like the ballet studio. But it took more than clicking her heels to realize her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
Today, as Cincinnati Ballet’s artistic director and the choreographer of the upcoming world premiere of “Dancing to Oz,” Morgan is more than excited to present this autobiographical story of a young girl named Dottie and her challenging journey that ultimately reveals her hidden strengths, infusing her with new hope and self-confidence as she pursues her life’s dream.
Based on the classic “Wizard of Oz” tale, “Dancing to Oz” is part of what is described as the “dazzling triple bill” concluding Cincinnati Ballet’s landmark 2018-19 season in late April. It’s a season heralded as a celebration of Carmon DeLeone’s 50th anniversary as the ballet company’s beloved music director. As such, DeLeone spent his summer writing the original “Dancing to Oz” musical score.
“This is a story that’s been inside me for a long time,” Morgan says. “It started taking form four or five years ago. It is a universal story of self-acceptance, of accepting there may be things that are a part of your unique nature that you may have difficulty overcoming, but realizing that if you can look into a mirror and accept what is not perfect and see strengths that tend to hide behind that imperfection, you’ll turn those insecurities into strengths. You’ll find a way to express yourself and not be so afraid. You’ll find ways to step forward.”
The idea for “Dancing to Oz” was born during a charade exercise for a group of theater students at the University of Missouri majoring in production-related careers such as costume, set design, lighting, sound design and writing.
“Our subject was the Wizard of Oz because I had been thinking about that production for Cincinnati Ballet,” Morgan explains. “As part of introducing me to the students, I was asked to share my background. Together we talked about the ‘Wizard of Oz’ from the past, and we also focused on what the story would be like if it had been written today.”
One young, extremely bright student, Alexander LaFrance, proposed the blending of Morgan’s personal story and the Wizard of Oz by incorporating the traumas of a dancer facing her insecurities – such as feeling not smart enough, not fluid enough and not brave enough to stand in front of the room – while struggling to establish a professional career in ballet. And as fans of the original Wizard of Oz will recall, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion all faced similar issues.
“It is interesting to comprehend that your perceived weaknesses are not what hold you back. It is the fear of those weaknesses that will undermine your ability to succeed,” says Morgan. “Often it is facing those very weaknesses that will propel you forward, inspire you to work harder and to have empathy for others.”
LaFrance created his libretto based on these conversations and philosophical conclusions, and then came the challenge of telling a complicated story using no words, only physical movement. He and Morgan worked and reworked the libretto for more than a year, and once that was set, they had a road map for their other collaborators.
Summoning Lady Muse
“I’ve been asked, ‘Are you using music from the movie?’” composer DeLeone says. “I say emphatically, ‘No, none whatsoever.’”
One of his favorite composers is Harold Arlen, who wrote the songs for the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz” (lyrics by E.Y. Harburg), including the classic “Over the Rainbow.” While there may be a few salutes to Arlen’s musical style in DeLeone’s “Dancing to Oz” score, you won’t hear any of the actual music from the movie.
“It was difficult for me to write the music and not bow to my hero, Mr. Arlen,” DeLeone adds. “But I’ve done it, and I think it turned out really well.”
DeLeone, who created his prized “Peter Pan” score for Cincinnati Ballet in the early 1990s, is honored and flattered whenever he is asked to write music for the ballet because he was never officially trained as a composer. “I’ve just experienced a lot of work in that area,” he says, And I’m happy for the successes. I realize how fortunate I have been, and I am so very appreciative of those folks who have supported my work. Cincinnati has meant everything for my career.”
Although DeLeone is no stranger to composing major musical scores in a matter of months, the process does have its challenges.
“It’s the same age-old problem for any artist, whether they’re a novelist, a visual artist or a composer – the challenge of sitting down with a blank page and figuring out where to go from there,” he says. “With a ballet like ‘Dancing to Oz,’ that page is not completely blank. There is a scenario – the libretto – to help guide the way. And I have a partner in the project who I can bounce ideas off of to keep me pointed in the right direction.”
DeLeone’s original “Dancing to Oz” score may already be written down, but there are sure to be tweaks and changes up to and including the final week before the late April performance.
“I may need to lengthen a musical phrase so a dancer can get across the stage, or tempos may need to change a bit. We may even cut out or add some music if we need to,” he says. It’s an ever-evolving process.
It’s a true pleasure to have a music director of DeLeone’s magnitude and talent creating the music for her world premiere because he shows a unique sensitivity to and appreciation for the story and its characters, and he possesses an innate sense of timing and transition, Morgan says. He knows the dancers, the roles they are inhabiting and how the “Dancing to Oz” score must accommodate each character.
“For 50 years, we have had the best maestro any ballet company could hope for,” adds Morgan, who has served as Cincinnati Ballet’s artistic director for just over two decades. “He’s exceptional. I don’t know any person who works with him – our dancers, our staff, our crew, our musicians – who doesn’t adore him. And for good reason.”
DeLeone and Morgan collaborated on “Dancing to Oz” all summer long, mostly via email and Skype and with the assistance of computerized musical notation technology. They also conferred with New York costume designer Cait O’Connor and New York set designer Amy Rubin.
When choosing a costume designer, Morgan considered about five different names and corresponding portfolios.
“I saw Cait’s work and energy just right off the computer screen,” Morgan recalls. “I could feel this amazing pulse. There was a creativeness and vividness in color and line. So I said, ‘She’s the one!’ She is fun and full of ideas and comes up with solutions to not only design costumes that look amazing but costumes that the dancers can move freely in. She is an awesome designer and my first thought was, ‘We’ll never get her.’ But Cait was thrilled, she loved the story, the idea of it. She felt it could be beautifully told. She was enthusiastic from the first minute.”
O’Connor has worked her costume magic over the years in opera, film, television and with Cirque Du SoleiI.
“I am so excited to work with Victoria,” O’Connor says. “She is so open and willing to investigate and experiment. It’s been a beautiful collaboration. We’ve done some of the fabrication work in New York, and some in Cincinnati. Cincinnati Costume Shop is amazing! They’re absolutely wonderful. They got the whole vibe of the show, and then they went for it. So, we’re doing these crazy, over-the-top costumes for Oz, but the story is really about Dottie moving through her insecurities with the help of her friends.”
O’Connor has worked previously with Rubin, whose professional background includes theatre, opera, dance and other live events. Rubin met Victoria a few years back during discussions over another possible Cincinnati Ballet performance with a different choreographer.
“Collaboration is a bit like a courtship,” Morgan points out. “Like any relationship, so much of it is chemistry, how you feel, how you get the energy and the voice. Amy’s invention for creating gorgeous sets that can be manipulated by the dancers on stage right in front of the audience brings a fluidity to the story telling. Her work has such wonderful color and lines.”
Rubin based her initial set design collages for “Dancing to Oz,” on each scene from the libretto, and presented her final designs in the form of movable 3-D models.
“I always try to find the core of the story and home in on key components,” Rubin explains. “I make three-dimensional models in half-inch or quarter-inch scale, like what an architect does for a building. Then I walk through it with the director or choreographer, tweak it, and draft an architectural drawing to be sent to a carpentry shop to price out and build. I draw exactly what needs to happen. Designers leave it to engineers and carpenters to make sure the sets are built correctly.”
And Rubin has thoroughly enjoyed working with Morgan.
“She is wonderful! She has a great energy, she is super positive, and she is really open to collaboration and interesting visuals, which is exciting for a set designer,” Rubin says. “What she has created in Cincinnati is special. She brings together communities in the dance world in a way not seen in many places.”
A Complicated, Joyful Journey
Creating, choregraphing and directing a ballet is no small undertaking. Morgan’s last one was Cincinnati Ballet’s “King Arthur’s Camelot” in 2013.
“So seldom do you get to create a new ballet,” Morgan says. “Just the physical investment alone is big, creating new sets, new costumes. It’s been several years since we’ve been able to do a major project. ‘Dancing to Oz’ is special, and for a special occasion – Carmon’s 50th anniversary with Cincinnati Ballet. No doubt about it, it’s been complicated. But it’s also been a riot. I’ve had so much fun! It’s been a joy and a pleasure. There’s just something about being in the room with the dancers and feeling their energy. They’re such creative, spirited, inventive personalities.”
April may be months away, but there is still plenty of work to do in preparation for her world premiere.
“In the beginning, when that page is blank, there is so much freedom, it’s frightening. Then you get into the parameters, the narrative, clarity in the characterizations, the paths and boundaries along the road. It’s then you find a deeper precision and structure, and it’s less chaotic and more focused. It will keep changing as we put on the finishing touches.
“Working with such talented people, I sometimes have to pinch myself,” Morgan adds. “I had a vision for ‘Dancing to Oz,’ and it has turned out way better than I ever imagined. Excuse me, I’ve got to go now. I’m off to see the wizard!”
Cincinnati Ballet is located at 1555 Central Parkway, Cincinnati, OH 45214. For more information, visit www.cballet.org.