Follow the yellow brick road through a production of this classic ballet
Story by Vanessa Ray
Photos by Tom Hawley
Down a narrow flight of stairs inside Monroe’s historic and ornate River Raisin Centre for the Arts is dressing room one, the room where the girls with substantial parts in a play get ready.
Though it is early in the day, dressing room one is already a whirlwind of activity. Gossamer gowns in varying pastel hues hang along a portable closet in the middle of the room. The walls are painted a muted yellow and, though it’s spacious, the low ceiling makes it feel more cramped than it really is.
The talk of the day very briefly focuses on St. Mary Catholic Central’s boy’s basketball team making it to the state playoffs before it quickly switches gears. Nearby small groups of slim ballerinas chatted amongst themselves.
The room smells like a potpourri of Aussie hair spray, Bath and Body Works Japanese Cherry Blossom lotion and nail polish.
In one corner, Dorothy is curling her hair into perfectly formed ringlets. In the center, the Tin Man is getting smeared in a convincing coat of silver body paint. In a play where there is no speaking and everything is told through dance, mime and costume, the girls are tasked with ensuring their looks are perfect.
Soon, Dorothy and the Tin Man will join other popular characters on stage to create a story about a place somewhere over the rainbow.
Like hundreds of other Monroe County 16-year-olds, Gabriella Fedewa, one of the top dancers at The RRCA who is portraying Dorothy in this year’s production of “Wizard of Oz” begins her day rolling out of bed and getting ready for high school.
“I get out of bed around 6:45 and I get to school at 7:48 to be exact,” Gabriella, a junior at SMCC, said with a grin. “I go to school and I’m there until 2:30.”
It’s when school lets out that the similarities end.
“I go to Pilates from three to four, and then I start dance here (at RRCA) at 4:30, and that’s my pointe class. It ends at six, so I usually eat a snack during that time,” Gabriella said. “Then at seven we have our contemporary (dance) class with Daniel Zook, and if I don’t have a lot of homework, I head to the gym afterwards to work out.”
Gabriella’s extreme lifestyle suits her just fine.
While most of her classmates were busy cheering on the SMCC boy’s basketball team during their state playoff run, Gabriella was dedicating herself to her passion.
She loves to dance, even during warmups, and her coaches mention how she puts her all into it.
She shares this love with many of her friends at RRCA.
Gabriella, along with MacKynze Slatinsky, Avery Morales, Autumn Molnar and Chloe McLeod first appeared in the RRCA’s performance of “Wizard of Oz” when she was seven.
“I was a yellow munchkin and a monkey,” Gabriella said. “It was so much fun, I really enjoyed that.”
The second time, the same group appeared in the play when they were all 10.
Part of what makes playing Dorothy so surreal for Gabriella is she remembers how she idolized the girls who played the role.
“When I was younger there was an older girl named Betsy and I looked up to her, plus she was friends with my sister,” Gabriella said, a blush rising across her cheeks. “And she was Dorothy. So from that point I really wanted this role – plus, it’s just such a cool role – you get to act, but you also get to dance a lot.”
A little history
“The River Raisin Centre for the Arts was opened in 1938,” said Associate Director Calley Duffey. “It was originally called the Monroe Theater and was owned by Denniston Cinemas.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the space is its unique Southwestern Art Deco style, which is still obvious in the arching artwork that remains on the walls.
According to Duffey, the theater was in operation until 1975, but sat vacant from 1975 until 1987.
“In 1987, the Kiwanis club stepped in and stopped the building from being destroyed,” Duffey said.
It was then, in 1987, that the RRCA was officially founded.
It took years of volunteer work and massive amounts of rebuilding. In 1996 the River Raisin Center for the Arts officially opened its doors.
Another aspect of the play, which must be meticulously practiced, is the choreography.
For “The Wizard of Oz,” the job of creating that choreography fell on the shoulders of Gail Choate-Pettit. Luckily, the first show she choreographed for RRCA was “Wizard of Oz.”
“In 2008 (it) was the first time I did my own spring production,” Choate-Pettit said. “So ‘Wizard of Oz’ is special to me because it was the first.”
The final aspect of production is the costumes.
Dyanne Howland, a self-trained seamstress who flunked home economics due to “wanting to always do it her own way,” creates all the elaborate costumes.
“Nothing is better than seeing them dance,” Howland said. “I take my inspiration from the dances they do.”
For everyone involved in the production, the best part is seeing it all come together “with the beautiful costumes and the beautiful movement,” said stage manager Lauri Langmeyer. “The way we can bring it to life without saying a word.”
For anyone wondering what makes this version of “Wizard of Oz” so special, the answer comes quickly for those involved.
“The beauty of the story,” said Langmeyer with a large smile spreading across her face. “’Wizard of Oz’ is just a beautiful story.”