Colorado Ballet's Dana Benton as Dorothy. Kate Rolston, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

How Three Ballet Companies Joined Forces to Bring The Magical World of "The Wizard of Oz" to Life

Picture The Wizard of Oz, and your head probably fills with yellow brick roads, flying monkeys, emerald cities and ruby slippers. Now imagine what it takes to translate that magic to the stage—and what it would look like in pointe shoes.

On Friday, Colorado Ballet will present the company premiere of Septime Webre's The Wizard of Oz, a ballet they produced jointly with Kansas City Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet (KCB presented the world premiere back in October, and RWB will have their turn this May). The three companies split the costs of creating the full-length story ballet, which includes an original score by Matthew Pierce; 120 colorful costumes (plus 112 hats!) designed by Liz Vandal; projection technology and flying effects; and puppetry (including a puppet Toto) by Nicholas Mahon, who recently worked on the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics. The result is a major new production none of the companies likely would have been able to pull off on their own.


Putting together all the elements of the ballet was a huge undertaking that began nearly two years ago. In February 2016, while setting his Alice (in wonderland) on Colorado Ballet, Webre approached artistic director Gil Boggs about creating a full-length Wizard of Oz. The beloved book by L. Frank Baum had just become part of the public domain (meaning it's fair game for anyone to use without paying royalties), and Webre had been dreaming of turning it into a ballet for years. Boggs liked the idea, but they knew they'd need three or four companies on board in order to share the financial burden of such a big production. Enter Kansas City Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

With three companies in two different U.S. states, plus Canada, figuring out the best way to set up the partnership was the first challenge. As for splitting the costs three ways, the differences in value between the U.S. and Canadian dollars added another hurdle. For Royal Winnipeg Ballet, "If we were putting in a dollar, they were having to put in about 1.20 Canadian," says Mark Chase, CB's managing director. In the end, a couple of CB's board members who are lawyers suggested the three companies set up an LLC—one entity that they could use to handle all payments and contracts with the various vendors and designers they would hire for the show. To offset the currency differences, a large percentage of the costumes and sets were constructed at RWB's facilities in Canada, which became part of their contribution.

Colorado Ballet's Nicolas Pelletier, Dana Benton, Francisco Estevez and Christopher Moulton

Kate Rolston, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Because Webre's storyline hewed more to the 1939 film of The WIzard of Oz than to the book, the companies also had to contact Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to the movie. "We worked with their attorneys to come up with a shopping list of elements from the movie that we wanted to incorporate into the ballet," says Chase. "Then we pay them a royalty for the right to use those elements." For instance, the famed ruby slippers Dorothy wears in the movie are not in the book (originally, her shoes are silver).

As the ballet came together, the three directors were in constant communication. "We had a standing phone call every Friday," says Boggs, "where the three companies would be discussing the budget, proposal, design costs." They also communicated every few weeks with Webre and their designers, going over photos in shared Dropbox folders and exchanging ideas. Webre choreographed several scenes on each company, so all three were an integral part of the creation process. "We all have our DNA in it," says Boggs.

As for the way audiences are responding, CB is already seeing huge results in the leadup to their performances this week. "We're going to do over a million dollars in revenue on ticket sales for this," says Boggs, "which is the first time a production has done that for us, besides our Nutcracker." Introducing a new ballet has helped the three partner companies gain wider recognition and exposure, and they will likely continue profiting from the endeavor. Other companies have already expressed interest in performing the ballet themselves, which will mean renting out the sets and costumes.

For smaller, more regional companies in particular, the chance to have new work set on them, and to produce something of this scale, is often all too infrequent. "For one company to take on the risk and all the expense of putting on a new ballet is pretty burdensome, especially because most companies need to be very careful of their costs whenever they can," says Chase. "I see this as a model going forward." While he acknowledges that multiple directors working on one project might add complication, it's also triple the resources and creative brainpower. "You could argue that more people contributing to the final product is actually better," he says. "The process for the most part was very smooth between the three companies," says Boggs. "I think we're all very pleased with the relationships we have with each other and the way the production has turned out. It's been a good adventure."

Latest Posts


Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

As we push into May, the ballet world presents another lineup of exciting digital performances. We've rounded up a few of the season finales, collaborations and special programs coming up this month. Check them out below!

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks