The Ballet San Antonio production of “Peter Pan” took flight Friday night at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Those in attendance were drawn by the pixie dust and magic of the classic J.M. Barrie children’s tale. We were treated to an evening of simply beautiful dancing, laughter and even a few tears here and there. From beginning to end, this was an enchanting performance by a lovely group of dancers on the rise.
This was the first performance by the company under new management, and this team delivered the goods. Artistic Director Willy Shives and choreographer Peter Anastos were in attendance for the opening night performance. Also in town from Chicago to celebrate Shives’ new pride and joy was his wife Evie Peña-Shives and daughter Allie. The Shives have known Anastos since their days working as young dancers at the Milwaukee Ballet. It was a heartfelt evening for all.
There was also a first impression at stake. When Shives was faced with delivering a production of “Peter Pan,” his first instinct was to call in his colleague, Anastos. After all, the music that had been chosen for the production months ago was the original score by Carmon DeLeone. It was composed for the original Anastos choreography that premiered as a joint collaboration by the Cincinatti Ballet and Ballet West in 1995.
“Willy is all about the original,” Evie said. It made sense. Why re-invent the wheel when you have access to a talent like Anastos?
This production is, at its root, a revival. “I had kind of let (Peter Pan) go,” Anastos said in a recent interview. “I didn’t think it would be done again. Willy really kind of revived it from the ether.” Shives had seen the other versions of the ballet, and was determined to have what he deemed was the best choice for Ballet SA. “I was very flattered,”Anastos said.
The curtain rises on the spacious nursery of the Darling household. Little brothers John (Hans Gloor) and Michael (Mai Uesaka) are at battle with pillows, a war that they soon draw their older sister Wendy (Sally Turkel) into. The family tableau is established and rounded out by Mr. and Mrs. Darling and the Maid and the loving family dog, Nana. The first bit played with a great deal of pantomime and character establishment. A happy household, beautiful Victorian parents, restless children and lots of comic mugging. Nana the dog is especially fun, portrayed by apprentice Zane Terry in a large furry dog suit.
The dancing begins in earnest when Peter Pan (Ian Morris) makes his flying entry (literally) through the large picture window into the slumbering nursery in search of his wayward shadow. Morris and Turkel are a beautiful pair. San Antonio audiences are familiar with this successful partnering featured in past Ballet SA productions. As the “boy who wouldn’t grow up” and the budding young girl on the threshold of growing up all too soon, they deliver a sweet and playful performance, full of innocent love and curiosity for one another.
The flying aspect of the production came off without a hitch. Flying By Foy, the foremost company in the business of theatrical flying in the world, brought their magic to San Antonio. The dancers have taken to flying like fish to water. The flying is the most risk-prone aspect of the ballet, with many opportunities for accidents and ham-fisted flying transitions.
The company and the technical staff seamlessly handled the dancing and flying transitions, a testament to the staging and professionalism of all involved. The dancers had only a week of rehearsals with the flying apparatus. There had also been several full performance rehearsals thrown in to the delight of the Girl Scouts and school children who had an opportunity to attend. There were no evident glitches by the time the time the curtain rose on Friday evening.
The Lost Boys’ performances were sufficiently feral and sweet at once. When they believe they have killed the “Wendy Bird,” the little miscreants are elated until chastised by Peter. In the audience, children could be heard murmuring to their parents, “Is she really dead?” You know the hook is set when children in 2016 are still drawn to the make-believe in the tale before them.
No worries, parents. It is a magical world where wishing hard enough can still make your dreams come true. Pan leads the Lost Boys, along with Michael and John, in a white muju that brings Wendy back to life. Of course, she promptly charms all with her loving sweetness. This is a family-friendly show, appropriate for all ages. Children mature enough to sit through a performance will be mesmerized.
The entire Neverland sequence is frolicsome and dancey. Anastos has a preference for beautiful dance. He is clearly a “dancer’s choreographer,” as Shives has said. The company has a great time, telling the story of the kidnapping of the island princess Tiger Lily (Crystal Serrano) by Captain Hook (John Fraser) and his pirate horde.
Serrano’s portrayal of Tiger Lily is exquisite. Anastos’ preference for sparkling footwork and beautiful lines can be seen in the performance. She is accompanied by a corps de ballet of Aztec Indian maidens, giving the company an opportunity to show off the pattern and precision that a ballet audience loves.
The antics unfold in the tug-of-war between the Lost Boys and Hook’s Pirates, and things get sillier. In a ruse to distract Hook and rescue Tiger Lily, Pan dons a tulle tutu and veil to seductively lure the Captain away from the princess. The comic pas de deux sequence between these characters is hilarious. Remember, Anastos is the founding choreographer who put Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo on the map more than 40 years ago. This scene is a slice of campy goodness to be savored. In this sequence, Morris reveals a talent for comedy that San Antonio audiences have not seen in him before.
Fraser, on the other hand, plays for pure laughs as Hook. John Fraser is new to audiences here. He is a recent transplant to Ballet SA from Ballet Idaho, where Anastos has been artistic director since 2008. Fraser has clearly benefitted from his time with Anastos. He has a comic timing that is impeccable in combination with technical chops that cannot be denied. As Anastos points out, “Comedy is hard,” but Fraser makes it look easy.
Fraser plays Hook with a smarmy, slightly effete self-absorption. It is as if the character walks through life with a mirror always before him. He preens while intimidating his gang of misfit pirates with a passive-aggressive zeal. He is unnaturally fascinated by the sharply honed appendage for which he is named. Fraser has an expressive face, despite the mass of black curls and tricorn hat that would over-power a dancer with lesser character skills. He is ridiculous and entertainingly funny.
Although the pirates are foiled in the kidnapping of Tiger Lily, they are ultimately successful in snatching away Wendy, John, Michael and the Lost Boys. At the beginning of Act Two, it is clear that Wendy’s influence has had a calming and domesticating effect on Pan’s distinctly male-dominated pack. It is into this scenario that the pirates creep as Peter sleeps to make their revenge good.
This next scene takes place on the pirate ship, a very artfully rendered set straight out of the storybooks. The pirates carouse dementedly, creating another opportunity to show off the prowess of the company with a series of five variations. There are solo turns by Christopher McDaniel, Gustavo Candelas, Daniel Westfield and John Fraser with a comic duet from Lydia Relle and Heather Neff.
Particularly notable was the turn by Christopher McDaniel. He is a dancer with quick footwork as evidenced in his twinkling entrechat cinq, multiple tours and hanging jetés. McDaniel is an energetic dancer as well as an inveterate clown. After the performance, he joked that he is usually urged to tone down his antics. In this case he was urged to go bigger by Anastos.
With time and discipline, McDaniel has the potential to harness his natural talents into a well-honed package. Under the influence of Shives, it will be interesting to watch this dancer’s development. In addition to the role of pirate, audiences will see him perform in the title role of Pan on Saturday evening.
It is also in this scene that the Crocodile (Daniel Westfield) finally makes his appearance. In a well-upholstered soft sculpture costume, Hook’s lurking nemesis makes his first appearance after rescuing young Michael after he is forced to walk the plank. He belly-crawls across the stage with Michael lounging across his back, safely ferried ashore by the large, plushy reptile.
As Pan pulls off his denouement he comes to the rescue of the young Darlings and his comrades at arms. Hook and his crew are foiled in a final battle of swords, and the primo pirate is forced to walk the plank himself – right into the arms of the Crocodile. This results in another comic pas de deux, this time a torrid tango between Captain Hook and the hungry Crocodile.
All good things must come to an end. After all the adventure, Wendy and her brothers come to the conclusion that they must return home. It is a bittersweet parting of friends, and the Lost Boys lose the closest thing that they have had to a mother in a long time. Pan, of course, is most hurt by the departure.
The final pas de deux between Wendy and Peter is the most tender and fully rendered of the production. It gives the audience a beautiful romantic moment. Morris and Turkel successfully portray potential young lovers who will never be. This is where Wendy tells Peter that she must grow up and move on without him.
The return to the nursery is a tearful one. The DeLeone score successfully pulls at the heartstrings in the last scene, conveying the misery of the Darling household without the children and the joy of the young prodigals’ return home. The curtain drops on the final tableaux of Peter Pan hovering outside the nursery window, far away but as close as “the second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning.”
“Peter Pan” runs through Feb 14. Tickets are still available for purchase online, by phone at 210-223-8624 or in person at the Tobin Center Box Office at 100 Auditorium Circle. BSA will close the 2015-16 season with “Ballet Alive!,” April 8 – 10. This program is yet to be announced. For more information, visit balletsanantonio.org or visit the company’s Facebook page for the latest updates.
*Top Image: “Peter Pan” final tableaux. Ballet SA 2016. Photo by Page Graham.