Milwaukee Ballet dances on air in "Peter Pan"
Exactly how do you go about choreographing a two-hour ballet?
"Very slowly," laughs Milwaukee Ballet Company artistic director Michael Pink. "And in very small steps."
But sometimes, taking small steps can pay off in a big way – as is the case with Pink's enormously popular "Peter Pan," which the Milwaukee Ballet premiered to sold-out audiences (and disappointed last-minute ticket hopefuls) two years ago.
"I think people just did not believe that it was sold out, and so a lot of people were very disappointed," Pink says. "And so that's why we've brought it back – for all those who didn't get there last time."
The Milwaukee Ballet will present "Peter Pan" at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts May 10-13. The work will showcases the same classic storyline and the same impressive special effects (dancers in flight!) as its premiere performance, plus a few added twists.
"With all my work, there's always areas I want to revisit and the dancers want to revisit," says Pink. "We're older, we're wiser, we understand more about it. It continues to evolve. In particular a lot of Act 3 has been restaged – duets for Peter and Wendy have grown and developed."
Audiences two years ago were especially impressed by the airborne sequences. Utilizing Kentucky-based flying effects company ZFX, Pink's dancers have once again learned to fly – with a lot of help from an expert production team.
"I wanted to keep it very basic," he explains, noting the increasing "computerization" of special effects in such Broadway shows as "Spiderman" and "Wicked." "We use just one wire and harness for every dancer instead of two.
"But every person in air has two people in operations at the controls, and those people have to know every single second of the sequence – where the dancers need to be in space at every moment."
The end of Act 1 features four airborne performers dancing a synchronized sequence.
"We've got over 12 people working together to make that two-and-a-half minutes of magic happen," Pink says. "Get it wrong and you watch them tangle up in each other."
The challenge of bringing "Peter Pan" to the stage extended further than just configuring the technicalities of airborne dance, however.
"Of course this is such a famous book, a famous play, a famous movie – so what I had to do was look at it as a piece of dance theater, non-verbal theater. You have to decide how you want it to look, the characterizations," Pink says. "Then it's really just about getting the team together and creating this exciting adventure."
The play's iconic status was a daunting task for the dancers as well.
"I read the book twice, watched a number of different film versions, and spent a lot of time in my childhood memories," said Marc Petrocci, who plays Peter Pan. "This is definitely a show for everyone who believes in the power of dreams."
With all this in mind, adapting the play's nuances for "non-verbal" theater were handled in some pretty clever ways.
"In the play you hear everybody saying 'I do, I do believe in fairies!' and hear all the kids clapping," Pink says. "We needed to find a way to create that moment without using words."
The solution? The "fairy-fixer," or hundreds of lights distributed to every child and family in the audience to be shone at the point in the story when Tinkerbell needs the audience's support.
"That's a magical moment when the auditorium is helping bring Tinkerbell back to life," says Pink.
Most people probably don't realize the gestation period of a work of this size. When all was said and done, Pink had been working on the piece for five years before premiering it in 2010.
"There's so much more to the production than just the steps," he says. "The only way I know how to do these things is to find an appropriate subject matter and then collaborate with a team of incredibly talented people – scenery designer, composer, costume designer, a company that can provide special effects for flying onstage. Then you spend months, if not years, planning, discussing, preparing."
The final and most grueling part of production occurs in the actual studio.
"That's an intense period of time. For "Peter Pan" I was in studio seven hours, five days a week just to be creating that. Once that was completed, the next part is bringing all the scenery and lighting and live orchestra to the theater."
For most productions the company spends three days at Uihlein Hall before opening night, rehearsing and fine-tuning the production. For "Peter Pan" they gave themselves double that time to bring together all the various aspects of the show.
Pink calls the theater rehearsals a "defining moment."
"That's when you find out if those years of planning paid off," he says. "And I'm pleased to say they did."
Pink began his career as a dancer at the Royal Ballet and later joined the English National Ballet in 1975. He was already an award-winning choreographer and internationally known when he came to Milwaukee in 2002 to succeed Simon Dow as the Milwaukee Ballet's artistic director.
He says that a production of "Peter Pan"'s caliber is every bit as natural onstage in the Midwest as it would be at Royal Albert Hall in London.
"I don't think that just because Milwaukee's perceived as being a small city that it should have anything less than what is perceived to be world-class art," he says. "Then again, we know that the arts are one of our great strengths in this city.
"The beauty of art is that you work with what you have. We don't delude ourselves in terms of saying if we had a million dollars we could do it better. We just do in differently. And the quality is never compromised.
"It's a big testament to the support from the foundations and individuals of this city, which places a high value on the arts and helps me do what I want to do."
Tickets for "Peter Pan" are already selling "like hotcakes," says Pink.
"It is, of course, the piece for all ages. Last time we did this there were grandmothers coming out with tears in their eyes and little kids were coming out giggling and laughing. It managed to touch all people of all ages, which is the magic of the piece."
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