For those who wonder what Houston Ballet will be like when Artistic Director Ben Stevenson eventually retires, along with noted stars such as Lauren Anderson and Phillip Broomhead, Peter Pan was a glimpse at the next generation. And a very happy glimpse indeed. McIntyre has married his seamless movement, noted in his critically acclaimed abstract pieces Second Before the Ground (1996) and Bound (2000), with a talent for telling tales torn from Hollywood movies. His vision is astounding and with the creative help of Thomas Boyd’s scenery, Jeanne Button’s delightful costumes and Christina Giannelli’s magical lighting, viewers are plunged into a wonderfully real three act make-believe world.
Peter, danced brilliantly by young soloist Mauricio Canete, is a tangled red haired, wild-child dressed in a tattered green loincloth. In a creative twist, he is also a sibling of the Darling children. In the first scene, as giant puppet-like nursemaids push the children’s prams upstage, a mischievous fairy tempts Peter out of his, and he is lost. The remaining babies shed their baggy rompers to reveal the clothing of older children in an ensemble dance with their parents. The parents, in black and white period clothing and stoic upper-face masks to portray the seriousness of maturity, were beautifully danced by principals Dominic Walsh and Sally Rojas. McIntyre’s flowing duets with their languid lifts were at their best here.
In the bedroom scene, a willowy Wendy, danced flawlessly by Sara Webb, awakens to dance with night-time shadows. These are real shadows, cast against the scrim in front of which Wendy dances. Such a device could be tricky but McIntyre makes it work, moving the characters as though they were actually dancing together. Peter’s flying was another highlight of the evening. No Mary Martin bounding on wires here, McIntyre makes Canete appear to dance off the ground in a manner reminiscent of Daniel Ezralow’s early 1990’s aerial work. There are airborne pirouettes and somersaults and even duets and small group movements as the Darling children fly off with Peter. As the curtain went down on Act 1, glittering pinpoints of light extending into the theatre wrapping the audience in starlight.
Act 2’s Neverland is simple in its rock-hewn set, allowing the eye to stay with the fantastic actions and devices. The “Redskins” are literally red from head to toe and “vanish” by dropping to all fours and blending with the red rocks. The Lost Boys are dressed like the children in Mel Gibson’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – futuristic urchins with odd arcane costume props, such as Second World War goggles. Captain Hook is pure theatrics: white tights and shiny black knee boots with a brilliant blue naval coat. His makeup is dramatic with two towers of black hair like devil’s horns. The hook is a mechanical device that resembles an enlarged skeletal finger, which dancer Timothy O’Keefe can crook and curl. O’Keefe, originator of the title role in Stevenson’s Dracula, is the only principal to have a lead role in Peter Pan and he demonstrates his considerable acting skills in this delicious, demi-character role.
Yet another device is the “home movie” Hook shows the captured Wendy. Supposedly of his childhood, the film is actually an enactment on a raked stage with strobe lighting, giving the effect of an old black and white movie. The Young Hook in the ballet is actually Hook’s son, James. James was danced opening night by Britain Werkheiser who was unrecognizable as the mini-Hook, horned hair and all.
In Act 3, set designer Boyd does a frightening skeleton ship interior for the final showdown between Peter and Hook. The sword fight is neatly choreographed. Hook is dispatched to the water, although he does wave a white flag from the mouth of a huge crocodile that lumbers across the stage during the following scene change. In the end, the Darlings return home and are set in time in a lowered picture frame from which Wendy emerges to don her own parental-face mask and take her place as a real mother. Peter makes one last aerial pass, perhaps to remind us that even adults can still believe.
McIntyre’s Peter Pan is a brilliant and true mix of dance and theatre and should become a popular classic. Set to much over-looked music by Sir Edward Elgar, selected and arranged by Niel DePonte and conducted by the never-disappointing Ermanno Florio, the ballet has no weak points or lulls. McIntyre’s knack for moving the narrative forward, without resorting to mime or slowing down the action, is astonishing for such a young dancemaker. With or without fairy dust, he has proven his talent and takes his place as one of the top choreographers of the decade.”
This Peter Pan is no Disney or Broadway tale of the boy who leads a girl and her brothers to Neverland but ultimately can’t keep them there. Fed by the dark satire of author J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novella, it is a playful, compelling tale that juxtaposes the whimsy of childhood with the pain of growing up. Act 1 sparkles with magic realism, Act 2 is like a madcap cartoon and Act 3 gets serious — although not overbearing. Designers Thomas Boyd (scenery), Christina Giannelli (lighting) and Jeanne Button (costumes) put an abundance of special staging devices to good use. The Sir Edward Elgar score, compiled by Niel DePonte, layers on more magic — lush, lyrical and rollicking. The zippy, free-form choreography has some inspired moments. Ensemble dances are the ballet’s weak element, lacking inventive steps and hampered by rigidly ordered groupings.
The cast was exceptional, with Mauricio Ca–ete as Peter Pan, Sara Webb as Wendy and Timothy O’Keefe as Captain Hook. Through their dancing, McIntyre found the story’s essence. Peter was a wild beast of a kid, rambunctious and prone to tantrums. Wendy, torn by the desire to grow up, was delicately engaging. The story had some twists. In this version, Peter begins life as one of the Darling kids before a mischievous fairy sends him tumbling out of his stroller. Captain Hook has a son, and may have been abused as a kid. McIntyre omitted the book’s canine nurse, Nana, but Neverland’s crocodile — a big one — supplied ample critter interest.
Act 1 was set in an art-nouveau garden of huge flowers that morphed into a bedroom, where dancing shadows and fairies snuck through the walls. Kim Wagman, as Tinkerbell, was delightfully spunky. The Darling parents (Dominic Walsh and Julie Gumbinner) had some of the best movement — earthy and weighted, enhanced by severe masks that embellished their emotional distance. Wendy’s dance with shadows was another high point. A seamless blend of stagecraft and dancing, it was a jubilant flying dream that ended after some of the shadows became Wendy’s parents.
Canete was sensational in airborne full-body flips and pirouettes that took him back and forth across the stage. Wendy and her pajama-clad siblings (Randy Herrera and Leticia Oliveira) also flew, as did the occasional fairy. As the act ended, starlight extended beyond the proscenium arch into the theater, drawing everyone into the fantasy.
Act 2’s Neverland was inspired by Salvador Dali, going from a rocky red landscape to the Lost Boys’ underground hideout to a blue lagoon with glittery clouds. Costumes were the star here. Button concocted riots of colorful characters: Lost Boys that were part Harry Potter, part Rugrats; pirates with purple skin, tattoos and orange and green hair; mysterious Redskins washed in color from head to toe.
The Act 2 dancing was all about play as the Darling kids joined the Lost Boys, teased by the chameleonlike Redskins, who “disappeared” by dropping into a heap. The dancing shadows reappeared, waving flags as the light went blue. A trio of mermaids (Gumbinner, Mireille Hassenbohler and Sally Rojas) did a classically influenced pas de quatre with a merman (Phillip Broomhead).
O’Keefe was gleefully affected, brandishing a big finger of gnarled bone. His sinister side surfaced in a tension-filled pas de deux with Wendy that was one of the best dances. He also showed her what seemed to be a “home movie” of his childhood — a stunning play within a play on a raked stage. Here an evil schoolmarm beat a young boy until his finger turned crooked.
The visual feast continued in Act 3, as a projection of Hook’s skeletal pirate ship gave way to the real thing. Tomahawks, slingshots, swords and bodies flew in a brawl between the Lost Boys and the Pirates, capped by a sensational sword fight between Peter and Hook. By the ballet’s final scene, the Darling kids were home again, watching their parents in a tender, forlorn pas de deux. Wendy was ready to assume a grown-up’s mask — a moment that would have been heartbreaking had the fairies not paid one last visit.
Ermanno Florio led the Houston Ballet Orchestra smoothly through the challenging score. Suitable for children, the performance lasts approximately two and a half hours. An alternate cast is scheduled for two shows.”
Likewise, in the isolated instances when efforts to devise more original creations are made, the results are dubious, to put it mildly – Lar Lubovitch’s still-born Othello at American Ballet Theater (1977) is one grim example. To be sure, Houston Ballet, where 31-year-old McIntyre is Choreographic Associate, has produced more than its share of story ballets, each created by the English-born Ben Stevenson, the troupe’s Artistic Director. Though Stevenson’s creations, namely Dracula (1977), The Snow Maiden (1998) and Cleopatra (2000), have offered more decorative surface than theatrical substance, their example must have fired McIntyre’s ambitions.
So, while the young choreographer’s imaginative, engaging, and entertaining Peter Pan plainly outshines the more seasoned Stevenson’s like-minded ballets, its presence in Houston Ballet’s repertory remains a feather in its Artistic Director’s cap for backing McIntyre in his first such adventure.
Nearly every aspect of McIntyre’s theatrical savvy comes through in his ballet’s opening scenes, where the drama and its action get going with remarkable confidence. First off we see bursts of flickering light and fleeting silhouettes of winged fairies; then were confronted by three towering and forbidding black-clad nurse maids pushing baby prams. The felicitous scenic effects that frame the ballet’s activity, initially a garden in full flower, then a vaporous, inky gloom, are the good work of Thomas Boyd. The artful costuming, which runs a gamut from iridescent, cellophane-like fairy tutus, to severe nanny uniforms cannily combined with outsized, dummy upper-bodies, is the fine work of Jeanne Button. The apt music, sparkling for the fairies and thundering for the nurses, is Edward Elgar’s, whose “Wand of Youth Suite 1,” serves to open the Elgar selections sensitively arranged into a score by Niel DePonte. Bringing the action to full life is Christina Giannelli’s lustrous lighting, which at times streams onto the scene in bouquets of parti-colored beams.
McIntyre’s uncredited scenario mines much from “Peter and Wendy,” the 1911 novella that J.M. Barrie fashioned following the success of his 1904 play, “Peter Pan.” The printed synopsis spells out a somewhat tangled second act, where McIntyre finds himself straining to avoid racial clichés with regard to the Barrie’s “Redskins” and to explicate the twisted personality of the malign Captain Hook. As anonymous earth creatures, McIntyre’s Redskins, complete with Button’s reddish “skins” detailed by multiple eyes that make one think idly of red-skinned potatoes, become a confusing presence, rather than viable characters. Hook’s ploy to paint himself as an abused child by way of a staged film presentation that introduces the character of his son, James to the mix, is, for all its clever and charming enactment, more a confounding puzzle than an explanatory episode. But these murky passages come as part of an other wise smooth-running central act that grows out of a wonderfully-winning first act, and lead to a witty and moving last act.
Beyond gracefully introducing the characters—stiff-upper-lipped Mother and Father, stern housemaid Liza, fun-loving Wendy, John and Michael, scampish Peter Pan and flittering Tinkerbell—the first act eventually soars to full flight, with the athletic Peter leading the airborne journey. Though aided by the ever-expert wire-rig technicials with Flying by Foy, McIntyre’s Pan might as well be a spider spinning an intricate web of comet-tail trajectories out of thin air. Especially as enacted by the mecurial and almost feral Mauricio Canete, McIntyre’s Peter Pan embodies all the essences claimed by Barrie’s eponymous character when asked about himself: he is, he says, “youth,” “joy,” and a little bird that has broken out of its egg.” Some of the ballet’s best choreographic moments come in the flying sequences. McIntyre looks not just at the athleticism of such stunts, but at the plastic form his flying characters take as well as the space through which they course and float. Contrastingly, when the action leaves starlit skies and finds itself on lagoon waters, McIntyre is equally adept and effective. The rescue by Peter and his band of the innocent mermaid abducted by Hook and company is a delightful, childlike skirmish, with the embattled boats propelled as giddily as if they were bob-sleds.
Happily, McIntyre is not only a choreographer sensitive to the physical action of his ballet, he is also one perceptively attuned to the dramatic and emotional aspects of his narrative. Particularly as performed by gutsy Sara Webb, Wendy is a wise and loving young woman whose noble spirit comes through the thrust, shimmer and amplitude of her dancing. She enchantingly renders the delectable moments when she first takes flight, seemingly on the palm of Peter’s hand, as if the wire-rig involved were non-existent and as if there were no tomorrow.
Though McIntyre has not included Barrie’s nursery dog, Nana, his narrative does include, sparingly and without the expected, ingested clock, the famed crocodile, which he keeps as a surprise by not listing in the program. (I can’t bring myself to spoil the coup de theatre that is the crocs final appearance.) Given the widespread fame of “Peter Pan,” it’s disappointing that Tinkerbell’s ferocious side and her possessive relationship with Peter play little part in McIntyre’s scheme.
On a related note, one might have wished for more actual ballet intricacy by way of solo dancing and duets for the leading characters. But, just as Barrie sat back, on the strength of the success of his play “Peter Pan,” and subsequently elaborated it as a prose narrative, there is nothing to stop McIntyre from further evaluating his production and reinforcing it with more distinct dancing for the characters he’s solidly delineated dramatically. Right now, McIntyre has a strong leg up on his fellow contenders in the realm of narrative ballet. If he were to dig deeper still and find further opportunities for more pointed and protracted ballet dancing, his Peter Pan could hit even richer pay dirt.”
The title they seek is one that artistic director Ben Stevenson has held for years, the top-story ballet choreographer in the country. And with Stevenson’s contract up next year, the prize may well be the helm of the company. While McIntyre learned the craft from Stevenson as the company’s first choreographic apprentice, he seems to have surpassed his mentor. P
eter Pan is the most fully imagined, well-told, innovative story ballet to come from Houston Ballet in a long time. Unlike most narrative ballet, in which mime-acting propels a thin plot between disjointed choreographic showpieces, McIntyre actually uses the dancing to tell a story, making the steps seem natural and purposeful. The story is a familiar one — about the boy who wouldn’t or couldn’t grow up and the girl who finally had to. But McIntyre’s Peter Pan is darker and more interesting than the Disney version, harking back instead to the original work by J.M. Barrie. For one thing, this Peter is not at all effeminate, but untamed and impetuous, a wild-child in frazzled red hair and a loincloth.
McIntyre has made a terrific casting choice in spirited soloist Mauricio Cañete. With every muscle in his body, Cañete simultaneously conveys the cocky aggression and needy uncertainty that is an adolescent boy. In McIntyre’s telling, Peter started out just like any other child, but he tumbled out of his carriage as a baby and was swept away with the dirt by an uncaring nursemaid. Having fallen through the cracks and been forgotten by his parents, Peter is off to live out every child’s most secret and conflicted fantasy: to be without parents. This opening scene is expertly rendered. Within moments, McIntyre has set up the impassable divide between adults and children. The dancers playing the Darling children seem tiny inside their overscaled carriages; and with the help of puppetry and Kabuki-style masks, the nursemaids seem ten feet tall and monstrous. This is what grown-ups look like to children, McIntyre supposes.
Even Mr. and Mrs. Darling are dressed all in black and white with highly stylized, blankly staring masks. This scene also sets up the fact that Peter is Wendy’s brother, which leads to lots of loaded Luke-and-Leia-style flirtation later on. McIntyre doesn’t shy away from even the Freudian aspects of Barrie’s story. In one dance, he hints at Wendy taking her mother’s place beside her father; Hook (who in this case has not a missing appendage, but an extended and crooked one — whatever you want to make of that) is led to his demise by his own son; and with the children missing in Neverland, McIntyre has Mother rocking Father like a baby. These moments are fleeting — kids in the audience aren’t likely to blink twice over them — but they accomplish that rare thing in fun-for-the-whole-family productions: a second layer for adults to mull over. Another rare accomplishment: the use of gimmicks to wonderful effect.
The oversized crocodile is a little much, but Tinkerbell buzzing about as a tiny white light is convincing — as is Peter’s trick of casting her shadow on the wall (really a ballerina behind a scrim). A large frame captures poignant family portraits — first of the Darlings, and later, Wendy’s family. And Peter’s fight scene with Timothy O’Keefe’s Hook is as much fencing as ballet, with real clashes of swords. But what’s most spectacular, the dancers fly. This is not floating in the old Mary Martin style (although the same company, Flying by Foy, made both levitations possible); this thrilling flight is the logical next step in the art of ballet. Male dancers in particular have been pushing the art skyward for decades, and Cañete takes full advantage of this manufactured weightlessness with innumerable spins and somersaults.
But before we too get carried away, it’s necessary to point out that this production isn’t perfect. Soloist Sara Webb is a lovely ballerina, but she simply does not inhabit Wendy as Cañete does Peter; she’s too focused on the dancing — on hitting the right line and smiling at the audience — to let the story inform her movement. And the score, pieced together from Edward Elgar’s lesser-known works by Niel DePonte, mostly succeeds, except when Peter leads the kids off to Neverland.
The music grows so quiet here that the sound of the ropes and pulleys used to hoist the dancers spoils some of the magic. The way to the ballet’s biggest problem is paved with good intentions. In the original novella, created in the early 1900s, Neverland is an island, a place of unrestrained, overgrown nature to contrast with the controlled, straight-edged mores of Victorian society. And on this island, there were not only pirates but “redskins,” a.k.a. Indians or savages. But McIntyre, in an effort to divest Barrie’s story of its racism, transforms the natives into a fictional race of creatures who are literally red, from their toes to their teeth.
The unfortunate chain reaction: An otherwise interesting costume designer, Jeanne Button, creates some silly red outfits; scenic designer Thomas Boyd comes up with a Neverland that looks like Mars; McIntyre choreographs a boring number in which the red folk act cartoonishly menacing; and since the creatures serve no particular purpose in the plot, the narrative gets thoroughly confused.
The second act is designed to allow the redskins to blend in with their surroundings, but it completely ignores the Lost Boys, who look out of place in their ragamuffin earth-toned threads. Just where, in this hellish Neverland, did Peter find the plant material from which to fashion his loincloth? Even fantastical stories have their own logic, and McIntyre broke it here. Still, it’s heartening to see the next generation of dance makers taking some risks on the Wortham Center stage.”