First, there was "The Wizard of Oz." Then there was "Wicked." Now, says dancer-choreographer-teacher Nicholas Johnson, there's "The Wiyos of Oz," a multidiscipline, multimedia approach to Kansas' favorite fairy tale that fuses dance, music and film into a new art form.
"It's more than a dance program but not really a musical," says Johnson, dance director at Wichita State University and founder of Wichita Contemporary Dance Company. "The dancers tell the story without a word while the music is played live on stage with a movie running on a screen behind them. I like to think of it as a new turn of the wheel."
The 75-minute program, to be presented Thursday through March 28 in Wilner Auditorium on the WSU campus, is the premiere of the work written and directed by Johnson with choreography by him, Sabrina Vasquez and Denise Celestin.
The Wiyos of the title, who will play live on stage with the dancers, are an eclectic bluegrass-Cajun-vaudeville quartet of troubadours who toured with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp last summer.
"They also stole the hearts and minds of the people at the Bluegrass Festival in Winfield for the past two years," says Johnson, who became friends with one of the group founders, Michael Farkas, when he studied mime with Johnson several years ago. "We signed them to do this program before they toured with Dylan, and we're very lucky to still have them."
Other members of the Wiyos are Parrish Ellis, Joseph "Joebass" DeJarnette and Teddy Weber.
The Wiyos, whose members come from all over the United States, can't be pigeonholed as country or bluegrass or any easily categorized musical form. They began in 2002 as an acoustic group performing in taverns on the lower east side of Manhattan with a mix of early jazz, blues, country and even hip-hop. But as they prepared to record their first album in 2004, they became fascinated with "old-timey American music" from 1900 to 1930, particularly bluegrass, Western swing and New Orleans jazz.
"They sound a little country and a little Cajun but they are popular at a lot of bluegrass festivals because they don't sound like anybody else," Johnson says of the group that incorporates guitar, string bass, banjo and harmonica plus sounds effects using combs, washboards and megaphones. They also tickle audiences with their sly sense of humor in songs like "Monkey Whoopie," "Tennessee Tango" and "Silver Spoon."
The music that the Wiyos (named after a historic New York street gang) will play as part of the Wichita dance premiere are original compositions but not specifically written for this show. Instead, Johnson selected songs from their four albums to match his adaptation of Dorothy's journey through the tornado to Oz and back home. The Wiyos' "Roll on Down the Road," for example, kicks off Dorothy's adventures, while their "Valentina" and "Angeline" paint musical portraits of the good and bad witches she encounters.
"While the trappings of 'The Wizard of Oz' will be familiar, I've taken definite liberties with the story," Johnson says. "Now, it's about Dorothy's journey from the innocence of childhood into the maturity of becoming a woman. The characters she meets — like the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion — are all parts of her psyche. She must learn a dance step from each of them to become her whole self, in essence to choreograph the solo that will be her life."
The two witches, Johnson says, represent Dorothy's emerging sensuality from the unsure naivete of a child to the knowing maturity of a self-assured woman.
"By the time she reaches 'home,' she has learned who she is. It is a voyage of self-discovery."
Dancing the role of Dorothy is Lyndsey Barnett. Elizabeth Pomeroy is the Scarecrow, Heather Warren is the Lion, Keli Carey is the Tin Man, Bethany Fiscus is the Dark Witch, Stephanie Cunningham is the Light Witch, and Maurice Sims is Oz himself.
Besides the 30 dancers in the dance troupe, there will be special surprise cameos from local, political and WSU dignitaries whom Dorothy meets in Oz, including arts patron Ann Garvey as the cranky (and comical) Wicked Witch of the Midwest, who tangles with Dorothy's falling house.
On the screen behind the dancers will be a movie showing Dorothy's dash through Oz incorporating local Wichita landmarks. It was filmed by cinematographer Lonny Quattlebaum of WSU's Media Resources Center and directed by Johnson. On occasion, characters travel from stage into the movie and back again.
The set is by David Neville, lighting by A.J. Kellison, costumes by Renea Goforth and props by Jason Flanders and D. Williams.
If you go
'the wiyos of oz'
What: Premiere of original multimedia dance program by WSU-based Wichita Contemporary Dance Company
Where: Wilner Auditorium on WSU campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat. and 3 p.m. Sun.
How much: Tickets: $10 adults, discounts available, at WSU box office or by calling 316-978-3233.