Mermaids, fairies & pirates
It’s evident children are going to adore Houston Ballet’s revival of Trey McIntyre’s critically-acclaimed 2002 story ballet, Peter Pan. Few would argue that the production, which opens Thursday night, isn’t a natural for kids. “Fairies are real, shadows become a threatening presence, and the children meet a new friend who whisks them away to a fantastical place,” promises Houston Ballet’s official press release.
The press release reminds us, as well, that McIntyre’s danced version of the J.M. Barrie classic is told from a child’s perspective, employing a “playful sense of scale.” The opening scene features seven-foot-tall “larger than life” nannies wheeling in “huge buggies.” Sounds trippy, but it’s a strategy familiar to anyone who’s seen The Nutcracker. Remember how tiny Clara looked in front of that huge, menacing Christmas tree?
I don’t have children of my own to take, but I’m planning to see Peter Pan nonetheless. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love mermaids (that recent special on Animal Planet was not a hoax!), fairies (please, I’ve heard all the jokes) and certainly pirates (from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp). And after discussing the piece with the choreographer, I’m convinced there are even a few more reasons adults shouldn’t dismiss this Houston Ballet season-ender as mere child’s play.
1. Trey McIntyre is a prolific, imaginative and talented choreographer
I’ve been watching McIntyre’s work for several years and I haven’t seen a bad piece from him. The tall, charming Kansas boy studied at Houston Ballet Academy in the late 1980s, danced with the company for six years, and was choreographic associate for Houston Ballet from 1989-2008. I’ve reviewed his choreography for his own company, Trey McIntyre Project, which is based in Boise. It’s always been full of surprises.
“The premiere of Peter Pan was very special to me,” McIntyre explained. “It opened around the time that [former artistic director] Ben Stevenson was moving on from the company. In making it, I was very careful create from my own voice, while respecting and honoring the traditions of storytelling that I had learned mainly from Ben. He was so happy during the premiere and for him to be proud of me could not have meant more. It has been a pleasure to return now to work on this piece and see how this talented company has deepened that tradition of storytelling even more.”
2. Celebrated designer Jeanne Button’s intriguing costumes are somewhat inspired by a “punk” look
This is evident in the promotional photos, even the one where it looks like Peter is about to use his sword to do something life-changing to Captain Hook. In the 1980s, contemporary ballet and punk were hardly faux amis. The power, speed, and iconoclasm of both came to the fore in works by such choreographers as Karole Armitage and Michael Clark.
“I'm not sure if I would classify it as a punk look,” said McIntyre. “We spent three years in pre-production on the piece, so we had a lot of time to work out the intricacies of character and how they manifested in the design. Jeanne and Tom [Boyd] and I pow-wowed face to face for long weekends over the course of those three years. There were lots of different references in all of the characters but none were to necessarily clearly reference a genre. They all became tools in describing these characters specifically as new inventions.
"Barrie's book resonated with me deeply and the people who populate the story were very clear in my mind and it was just a matter of how to best support those people through the design,” he added.
3. The music is great
If you’ve been to a graduation ceremony where one of Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches was played, you’ve heard some his music. But there is so much more! Elgar’s often passionate compositions have inspired a number of contemporary choreographers, including Paul Taylor. Former Houston Ballet music conductor Stewart Kershaw suggested his scores for this work.
“I wasn't familiar with the vast library that Elgar ended up providing for Peter Pan,” said McIntyre. I actually did most of the research and music selection before working with Niel DePonte, music director for Oregon Ballet Theatre, which was the company that originally commissioned Peter Pan (funding ended up falling through). I have to say, there is not one musical moment in the piece that I feel is too much of a compromise. It was a great fit.”
4. Time flies in this ballet – literally. You might find it almost as thrilling as a Broadway show
“Shortly before beginning work on Peter Pan, I choreographed and performed in a dance work called Sprits, which was produced in Portland, Oregon by Lion King designer Michael Curry,” said McIntyre. “In that piece I did quite a bit of flying. We spent about eight months in a high school auditorium, developing an intricate flying solo.
"I learned a lot about the nuances and possibilities of flying, so when I began this choreography, it was important to not just pick people up and put them down; I wanted the flying to liberate the dancers to dance in ways that gravity limits. I spent two days at the Foy studios in Vegas and actually created it very quickly.”