Behind the Scenes of Milwaukee Ballet’s Peter Pan
Fairy dust doesn’t make Peter Pan fly for the Milwaukee Ballet. Cables, pulleys and muscle make the aerobatic magic happen.
Dancers, not stagehands, will be at the end of the cable, hoisting and feathering. When Marc Petrocci plays Pan, Michael Linsmeier will control his flying. And vice-versa when Linsmeier plays Pan. Likewise, dancers and alternates who play Tinkerbelle and the flying Darling siblings will literally pull for one another.
The theory is that those running the cables ought to know the choreography and the feel of it and thus can get the rhythms right. It’s not only about flying, it’s about making a dance out of flying. The flying has rhythm and subtlety; at the rehearsal, the pullers strove to get just the right sense of the Darling kids being swept up in Pan’s wake. It’s all in the timing.
Pink, the company’s artistic director, has been at work on his Peter Pan for five years. His ballet version is the latest in a long line of novels, plays and films about Pan, who first appeared in 1902 as a secondary character in a novel by James M. Barrie. In 1904, Barrie wrote and staged a play about Pan.
His story has been retold and revised countless times since, most famously in the 1953 Disney film and the 1954 Comden and Green musical, which starred Mary Martin. NBC television won huge audiences when it broadcast performances of the that musical twice in the mid-1950s and in 1960. Then there was Hook, the Robin Williams film, in 1991, and another Peter Pan film in 2003. Former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby toured as Pan for years in a production built around her.
Pink looked to none of those shows and films for inspiration. The Milwaukee Ballet Pan is new from the ground up. Pink’s friend and frequent collaborator, Phillip Feeney, wrote the music for this production; the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra will play it. Judanna Lynn did the costumes, which are elaborate. Rick Graham, of UWM, designed the set, and David Grill designed the lights.
One clever stage effect increases the sense of velocity as the fliers soar from London to Neverland. Cutouts of London landmarks — Big Bend, the Tower of London — wheel across the stage in opposite the flight path. Again, dancers rather than stagehands drive these set pieces; again, the buildings are supposed to dance, not merely move.
“Everything has to be musical,” Pink said, in an interview a few days after the rehearsal.
ZFX Flying Effects, the firm that flew Rigby about, worked with Pink and the Milwaukee Ballet on this project. By the time ZFX Flying arrived in Milwaukee, he had the whole thing sketched out on storyboards. Everything Pink hoped he could do was do-able, and then some. Pink said that the level and sophistication of flying in Milwaukee is higher than usual. Dancers are athletes; they can do more with their bodies in space than the typical actor.
“Every costume, which cost $2,000-$5,000, is sponsored,” he said. “The Heil family and Bud and Sue Selig gave the lead gifts. If the commish [of baseball] thinks Peter Pan is a good idea, it probably is.”
Pink hopes to use the show as a cash generator for years to come, as a sort of non-seasonal Nutcracker, and as a rental and unique touring piece. So far, so good; the advance sale for the premiere run has been huge.
Another bonus: It’s been a morale-booster for the company.
Nicole Teague, couldn’t help smiling the entire time she was flying. Petrocci said that the first hoist was slightly scary, but after that flying has been a total blast.
Flying is big in this production, but not the only thing.
“The story has Disney appeal, and everyb0dy knows Peter Pan,” Pink said. “But I didn’t just want it to be on the surface,” Pink said. “I wanted to add layers, as we did in The Nutcracker.
“Is it all about growing up? About being part of a family? In the original play, Peter has nightmares because of his pangs to be mothered. He’s all about freedom and freedom from responsibility, but in his darkest moments he longs to be part of something.”
On the other hand, he can freakin’ FLY!
Peter Pan runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 13-16 at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. (Note: Sunday is SOLD OUT.) For tickets and further information, visit the Milwaukee Ballet website. Tickets are also on sale at the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206.
UPDATE TUESDAY: The run is SOLD OUT. Call the ballet’s ticket line, 414-902-2103 to check the waiting list and for obstructed-view seats.