Shockheaded Peter

The battle for the Ballet has begun. In corner one is homegrown hopeful Trey McIntyre. In corner two, Australian upstart Stanton Welch. It's a good match-up: Both choreographers have created successful short works for Houston Ballet, and this year each is setting a full-length ballet on the company. In September, Welch will present his 1995 Madame Butterfly; McIntyre has already come out swinging with a world premiere of his first three-act piece, Peter Pan. 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. Peter 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.

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Lauren Kern
Contact: Lauren Kern