Friday night I went to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance of PETER PAN. Despite having written my master's thesis on Pan, along with a number of smaller papers - I have never seen any kind of live production of the story. So despite not feeling overly enthused about a Pan ballet, I went.
(The Benedum center where the ballet is performed is EXQUISITE, incidentally, and was almost the highlight of my night).
I was encouraged when I opened my program to see that the choreographer is Septime Webre, the man who brought me this year's Washington Ballet version of The Nutcracker (which I saw, and LOVED).
But the ballet was uncompelling, and I'm not sure this is Septime Webre's fault. What makes Barrie's play/novel interesting to me - and so interesting, moving, dark and funny - is NOT the plot; it's the stage directions, the narrator's asides. The ballet, of course, being wordless, strips out all of this oddness and leaves us with only the bare bones of the story which - to tell you the truth - is not too compelling.
The ballet opens on a tediously long scene in the Darlings' nursery, with unspectacular choreography for the whole family - including one clever/creepy bit in which Wendy and her mother mirror each other's steps around Mr Darling. Nana is played by a dancer in a dog costume. John needed a shave, and Michael looked creepy in large-sized sleeper pajamas.
Eventually, Tinkerbell, in the form of a spotlight, turns up and flits around to what sounds like a cellphone ring tone. I sighed. The music for this was swoopy and treacly and canned - no live orchestra - and made me want to vomit. Imagine a cross between a Disney soundtrack, a bad John Williams score with a little hoked-up Gershwinian freneticness thrown in, and you've almost got it.
Peter flies up into the window, hurrah for theatrical technology. A long strange sequence of Peter and his black sheer fabric shadow. Eventually, after much awkward and ill-disguised rigging (the dancers backed into the curtains at the nursery window to be hitched into their flying apparatus) the children fly off to neverland.
which is represented by a series of filmstrip-like rudimentary cartoons of a receding view of London.
Neverland. blah blah Lost Boys including three lost girls (which irked me badly). Wendy is shot and dangles to the stage, looking frighteningly like she's been hanged, and is twisting at the end of a rope, rather than simply falling from the sky.
Instead of causing Wendy to be shot, Tink (now a full-fledged ballerina) twinkles around preciously and revives her. Three cheers.
Various divertissement from Lost Kids and Pirates. Hook was quite dashing and made me think of Jack Sparrow. Hook, textually, has always been a bit of a dandy, a bit queer, to my mind - seeing the Sparrowesque treatment made me think perhaps Johnny Depp wasn't being quite so original in his vision of Jack Sparrow afterall.
The showstealer - the Crocodile - appears. A dancer in quite an awesome croc suit, the Crocodile slithers on stage to a vaguely disco beat (plus the ticking clock). eventually, he becomes bipedal and rocks out some great little hip-hop/disco dance steps. Everyone laughed and applauded uproariously.
The second showstealer - the Indian maids (dressed weirdly in red with what looked like waitress aprons) did a GORGEOUS piece with good music. Tiger Lily, performed by one of the principal dancers, was wonderful. I was pleased as well because, other than being marked in the program as "Indian maids" there was virtually NOTHING about their costume or dance that was "indian." This is good because the Indian sequence of Pan is often a big fat offensive mass of nasty stereotypes. But Tiger Lily's choreography was beautiful, beautiful - and also repeated a wonderful combination that Webre used in the "arabian" divertissement of his Nutcracker (which, incidentally, also used native americans instead of 'arabians').
Happily sighing over this bit of beauty - the score here was lovely as well - I was vastly disappointed with everything else except the crocodile. Peter puts on a fluffy tutu and veil and dances in drag with Hook to get Tiger Lily free. This was great because it got at some of the utter queerness and unfathomableness of Barrie's original, but it was also sort of overdetermined and creepy to see (I found the ballet's Peter quite disturbing to look at, regardless of costume).
Intermission. Many children in the audience rush to the lobby to have stuffed animals bought for them.
Resume ballet. Extraordinarily drawn out and uninteresting Pirate Dancing on the ship. Undercutting the earlier queerness of the first Pirate dance number, we now have Pirate Wenches boozing it up. boring.
the kids are kidnapped.
Michael is forced to walk the plank, and reappears moments later riding the back of the Crocodile, doing the john travolta "eyes" move from Pulp Fiction. the two boogie across stage, discoing off into the sunset.
Peter shows up in time to rescue wendy. flitting around. Fight sequence. Peter does a few flips in midair (thanks, harness!) which get a lot of applause. Hook is eventually vanquished. This is represented with the final awesome bit -
Hook and the Crocodile dance together. Not just any dance - they do a modified TANGO. it was great - really brilliant.
but it's time for the little Darlings to fly away home, so Peter sends them on their way. Now we get another tediously long and boring sequence in the Darling home. Peter sways back and forth outside the window, clearly unable to control his flying apparatus. he looks very peculiar and pendulumic as he ticks back and forth.
All the Darlings but Wendy exit, I'm not sure why, because Wendy only does a few lame steps before also vanishing offstage after clasping her hands to her bosom and gazing halfway toward the window (through which Peter Pendulum is ticking).
The Crocodile got the most applause. Tiger Lily got the second most. I gave her a standing ovation, because her dance was truly exquisite.
Lesson learned: the story of Peter Pan is not very interesting, and makes for poor ballet theatre.
The Pgh Ballet announced though, that next spring, they will have the North American premiere of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. I will attend. I think Alice should translate significantly better to a wordless stage, provided the choreography and sets are done right.