Tom Strini

Peter Pan returns to the Milwaukee Ballet

By - May 9th, 2012 05:16 pm
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Lighting designer David Grill (left) and set designer Rick Graham, on stage with elements of the set for the Milwaukee Ballet’s “Peter Pan.”

Michael Pink’s Peter Pan, a big hit at its debut two years ago, will return to the Milwaukee Ballet Thursday through Sunday. The show is enormous fun, with pirates and flying, and kids went crazy for it. The principal casting is more or less the same as in 2010, and of course Rick Graham’s fanciful, sculptural set David Grill’s magical lighting are part of the revival.

So, if the show was so successful, why are Graham and Grill spending so much time in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall fussing over it?

“I walked away with piles of notes after the first production,” Grill said. “We did it in Denver about a month ago, and I walked away with another pile of notes. And now, they’re going to shoot if for TV, so that creates a whole new set of problems. It’s never done, because it’s live.”

Graham, too, noted a list of things to improve the second time around. For example, little gaps in the pirate ship, which he didn’t think would show, but did. They’ll be filled in for the Return of Pan.

Graham, a member of the UWM theater faculty, and Grill, a busy pro based in New York, spoke Tuesday from the director’s table amid the orchestra seats at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. The set was on stage for a dress rehearsal to come that evening.

They had TV issues to contend with, and Michael Pink’s new bright ideas for the revival. Every little change in placement of a dancer or a set piece means a change in everything else. Flying makes for further complications. The rigging occupies five positions in the flyspace, which reduces Graham’s ability to fly set pieces in and out and limits lighting positions.

“It’s threading the needle, especially when they fly onto the ship, with the masts and the lanterns.” Graham said.

“Because of the flying, there are three three-foot strips where absolutely nothing can happen,” Grill said. “You have to resign yourself to that. And you have to resign yourself to the fact that people will see the flying wires. As a lighting designer, you have to create a situation where the human eye can’t really focus so much; then it becomes more magical. Of course, when everyone else is watching the dancer fly, all I can see are the wires.”

Graham and Grill agreed that the flying is great, but the moment that means the most to them is more about the audience. Every kid in the house gets a little battery-powered light on the way in. When the fairy Tinkerbell starts to fade, the kids turn on their lights to revive her.

“If the kids believe Tinkerbell is real, we’re successful,” Grill said.

“I remember that Tinkerbell moment,” Graham said. “When the lights dimmed, I felt a tear forming. I thought, wait a minute, I’m not supposed to do that!”

Pink brought both designers into the project early, which partly explains their obvious affection for it.

“Ninety percent of the time, the lighting designer is the very last person brought in,” Grill said. “Peter Pan has been highly successful because it’s been a collaboration of everyone, including the composer (Philip Feeney), from the beginning.”

Grill has done lights for every Michael Pink ballet since the Milwaukee Ballet’s artistic director came over from England in 2002. He and Pink met at the Atlanta Ballet, where former ABC artistic director John McFall introduced them, when McFall and Pink were talking about staging Pink’s Romeo and Juliet in Atlanta. Grill ended up lighting Romeo.

“We met again in New York,” Grill recalled. “I had one question for him: Where is the sun? The sun has to be somewhere in every scene in Romeo and Juliet, because you have to set the time of day. So we had a four-hour conversation about the sun.”

“Michael called me up just to chat in 2005,” Graham said. “We had our four-hour conversation at Alterra. I told him traditional ballet design, with wing drops and so on, isn’t my style. After a while, he said, ‘Look, I want to do Peter Pan.’ Two years later, Michael called and said, ‘Now, I really want to do Peter Pan. And I need concept drawings in 10 days.'”

“Michael does that to people,” Grill said.

Categories: A/C Feature 1, Dance

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