The Setup: Houston Ballet brings to life J.M. Barrie's fairy tale, Peter Pan, the first time since the ballet's 2002 premiere. Choreographer Trey McIntyre's interpretation is filled with the story's usual suspects of pirates, fairies and lost boys, but expands on the original's Victorian preoccupation with the enchantment of childhood, and the subsequent loss of it, for a ballet that is as weighty and introspective as it is light and whimsical.
The Execution: McIntyre's Peter Pan opens with the frightful image of giant puppet nannies safeguarding the Darling babies, an almost macabre motif that is repeated in the portrayal of the Darling parents. Both mother and father dance in masked faces, all sense of their interiors lives - the wellspring of imagination - blocked by veiled decorum. They move in stilted, structured waltzes, like possessed marionettes. Adulthood, then, takes on a nightmarish quality that the Darlings must be rescued from. They are, and none other than by the boy in green.
Don't expect to see Disney's interpretation of the character, a boy more elf than child. This Peter Pan is more akin to the Wild Boy of Aveyron, uninhibited by adult society and codes of behavior. He sniffs out new acquaintances rather than shakes hands, and he tackles his environment like an experienced parkour athlete. He's the perfect hero for this fast-paced, action-packed boy ballet.
Neverland is still a magical otherworld inhabited by fiery red-skinned natives and elegant water-tinted merpeople, and, of course, a band of slapstick pirates led by the infamous Captain Hook. Pan's antagonist is no buffoon, though. He's a suave, graceful rendition of polished manhood, the antithesis of Peter's carefree boy-child. Hook is a rounded character here, and even comes with an interesting back story and a son of his own.
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There are fairies in sequined green, but thankfully Tinker Bell is reduced to a cameo role. The female focus is rightfully Wendy, a girl who has the power to tame every unruly boy onstage. On Saturday evening, the character was danced by Melody Mennite; in her hands, Wendy became the story's centerpiece. Even at play with her brothers and the people of Neverland, Mennite moved with the determination and poise of a young lady on the brink of womanhood, which made the final scene all the more touching and resonant.
The Verdict: In the canon of Disney animated features, Peter Pan is a minor work, especially when compared to the company's other fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. That is because Disney got J.M. Barrie's classic all wrong. The story of the boy who wouldn't grow up isn't all fun and games. McIntyre's ballet isn't quite as dark as the source material, but his focus on the character of Wendy creates a smart examination of the space between childhood and adulthood. Wendy grows up, but she discovers that adulthood is nothing to be afraid of. It's not a realm plagued by worrisome woes, but a time full of its own wonders just as magical as those of an earlier age.
Peter Pan runs through June 23 at Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.