Eric Shanower, Ruth Bieber-Stanley, and Judy Bieber in the rehearsal studio.
An Interview with Eric Shanower on the new Road to Oz ballet
The 2009 Winkie Convention next month will begin not with a key-note address, but with a key-note performance! Oz author and illustrator Eric Shanower has choreographed a thirteen minute ballet based on L. Frank Baum's 1909 Oz book The Road to Oz. The ballet will be performed at 7:30 PM on Friday July 10, 2009, at the Fred Farr Forum on the grounds of the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California.
So, how did you come up with the idea of doing a ROAD TO OZ ballet?
The origins of this particular ballet are kind of hazy. I know that at the Munchkin Convention in 2005, Judy Bieber and I were catching up. It just so happened that we'd both taken up studying ballet since we'd last seen each other. I half-jokingly suggested that someday we do an Oz ballet at an Oz convention.
Then in 2007 you, David, mentioned that you were thinking of chairing a future Winkie Convention. Judy and I vaguely tossed around the idea that we could do a short dance piece for your convention and get Judy's kids involved since they were also taking ballet classes. I didn't think you were all that serious about taking on the huge task of organizing another convention program, but last year you decided to actually go ahead with it, so Judy and I got serious about actually creating an Oz ballet. Since Baum's fifth Oz book The Road to Oz would be the convention theme, it seemed logical to make a ballet out of that. We even had most of the principal players-I could be the Shaggy Man, Judy could be Polychrome, her daughter Ruth could be Dorothy, and her daughter Rosa could be Button-Bright. I even thought that our Boston terrier, Road, might make an appearance as Toto.
Rosa decided she didn't want to do it and Road playing Toto wasn't ever a very serious idea. But the three of us who remained, stuck with it.
Of course, the story has been cut down quite a bit. But the main thrust of the book is still there. The shape of the adaptation sort of evolved as I picked the music. The pieces of Oz music I used sort of fell into place pretty early, although the MGM piece was the last I picked. I knew I needed music from the Judy Garland movie to introduce the Emerald City, since that would communicate specifically to this audience, but it took awhile to pick the final one. The Victor Herbert pieces I picked after listening to a lot of his music. I like the idea of using Victor Herbert since he was a major American composer at the time Baum was writing the Oz books. The Herbert pieces all ended up being from The Red Mill, which has its own Oz connection in Fred Stone and David Montgomery-the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman from the 1903 Broadway Wizard-who were also stars of The Red Mill on Broadway. That connection wasn't intentional on my part-it just turned out that the music from The Red Mill fit what I needed in the ballet.
How many ballets have you choreographed?
Except for some short exercises in class, this is the first.
How long have you been studying dance? ballet?
I started ballet lessons cold back in March 2003. I was pretty naïve about it. I was inspired to take a ballet class during a visit to my friend and fellow Oz fan Michael Riley. He used to dance and was showing me stuff from his career and also a bunch of videos of dance sequences from movies and things. When I saw Angel Corella perform the pas de deux from Don Quixote with Paloma Herrera I thought it looked like tremendous fun. I'd taken tap dance lessons for several years when I was a teenager, so I thought it might be fun to try some kind of dance classes again. I saw a flyer at the YMCA where I was a member. It advertised a beginning ballet class for a month and an intermediate ballet class for a month. I thought I'd try the beginning class for the first month and if I liked it I'd try the intermediate class the next month. Well, come to find out, it doesn't work that way. A beginning ballet student takes class for many months before progressing to intermediate. I'd heard over the years how difficult ballet was supposed to be, but I never fully believed that until I tried it myself. It's really difficult to do well and takes a lot of strength, energy, and concentration.
How did you go about casting the show?
The idea started with Judy and me, so obviously we were going to be in it. The fact that Judy's daughter Ruth-who's the right age for Dorothy and looks similar to Neill's illustrations of Dorothy-was also studying ballet made her a natural choice.
What was it like transforming Baum's novel into a 13 minute dance piece?
Obviously the story is vastly abridged, since there are only three characters and it's 13 minutes long. Ballet is a very stylized artform, so I had to figure out ways to imply a lot. Fortunately most of the audience will be familiar with the source material. But it's a story ballet and anyone who knows the book will recognize the story. The real heart of the ballet is probably the Love Magnet, which is more prominent in the ballet than in the book.
So what has the work process been like with you living in SD and the Biebers living in Albuqueruque, and performing it in Monterey?
Ballet is a difficult and demanding artform for both the mind and body. None of the three of us is a professional dancer, so the ballet had to be something we're capable of performing. Judy basically told me a little about what she and Ruth were capable of and I tried to choreograph within those lines. I listened to the music over and over and tried to see the dancing and acting the music was telling me, then did steps until I'd come up with choreography that seemed to fit the music and tell the story. I sent the music to Judy and Ruth on CD and wrote out the choreography and e-mailed that to them. They learned some of the choreography without me and I tried to learn my choreography without them, but it didn't really come together until I took a few days' trip to their home in Albuquerque and we three learned all the dancing together. One of their instructors loaned us some studio space to practice. It was fun seeing it all start working. Of course we had to make adjustments, but overall it didn't change much from what I'd originally seen in my head.
I don't know what a professional choreographer's opinion would be of the piece, but I had fun writing it. I hope the audience at Winkies has fun watching it.
So, should we expect to see another Oz ballet sometime soon?
This project has been fun, don't get me wrong, but preparing this 13-minute ballet has taken so much time and effort-picking the music, choreographing, learning the choreography, traveling to another state to rehearse, making the costumes, figuring out lighting, and making a special trip to Asilomar to plan the performance space-it's not something I'm probably going to spearhead again any time soon. I wish all my friends from ballet class could come see this one.
Don't miss it! Eric Shanower's Road to Oz ballet premieres at 7:30 PM on Friday July 10, 2009, at the Fred Farr Forum on the grounds of the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California.