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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Milwaukee Ballet’s Spectacular ‘Peter Pan’

Michael Pink debuts world premiere based on J.M. Barrie story

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The Milwaukee Ballet’s new Peter Pan by Artistic Director Michael Pink could be the most spectacular show ever originated in Milwaukee. The list of reasons to see it is mighty compelling. One of Pink’s aims is to prove that a big theatrical statement with high production values, an original score and a live orchestra can be made at a reasonable cost. In this case, that’s less than a half-million dollars, and Pink believes that several scenes will rival anything achieved on Broadway.

One of Pink’s real strengths as a maker of story ballets is his insistence on creating psychologically detailed characters and credible relationships that dancers can inhabit with integrity.

“You don’t have to leave your home to be in Neverland,” Pink says. “The children in the story know that: Even though they’ve never been there, they’ve been there. What happens at home materializes in Neverland.”

When I ask Pink if he’s been inspired by any of the existing ballet versions of the story, he waves them off as “little flowers and dancing fish.” He’s worked for five years on this ballet with his longtime friend and collaborator, the composer Philip Feeney, and their only source has been the original J.M. Barrie play. They’ve set the ballet in London at the onset of World War II to suggest the haunting connection Barrie himself made between the Lost Boys and all the young British soldiers doomed to never grow up.

Feeney’s score is through-composed, so every moment has its perfect music. This means frequent changes of meter, sometimes bar by bar, a challenge to the orchestra and dancers.

Playing Pan

As usual, the roles are double cast. Marc Petrocci and Michael Linsmeier will alternate as Pan. Petrocci, with his fine-boned, sprite-like allure and fire, seems born for the role; and indeed, Pink set it on him. Linsmeier, whose inwardness can also hint at otherworldliness and self-possession, is an appealing alternative. Both have technique to burn. They are different, they agree, and “what’s great about Michael Pink is that as long as it’s honest, as long as it communicates and looks good, he doesn’t care how you do it.”

I ask them if they love Pan. “It’s exciting to play a character that’s so innocent,” Linsmeier says. “He only means for people to have fun. He sees evil, but he doesn’t let it affect him, which is something to be greatly admired. I’m trying to do that in my own life.”

Linsmeier also speaks with moving frankness of a connection he felt in rehearsal between Peter’s pride at bringing Wendy to Neverland and his own when he first brought his girlfriend to his parents’ Wisconsin dairy farm.

Petrocci’s mother rented the Mary Martin version for him as a child. He liked Pan, and “now I understand the underlying layers. But playing Pan, I try to forget all that. You can’t be as free as Pan if you’re thinking about the implications.”

Petrocci loves two mirrored moments in Pink’s version when Wendy and Pan look into one another’s eyes. The first: when she learns to fly and “her energy actually lifts Pan”; the second: when she decides to go home, and “all I see is how much she’s taking from me.”

But the most emotional moment for him is when Tinkerbell comes back to life. “Pan doesn’t know what death is,” he says. “All he knows is that he has to save her. He has to do something, and keep doing it, until enough people believe in fairies to save all fairies everywhere.” Petrocci wouldn’t reveal what that something is, except that it isn’t clapping.

Actually, both men take part in each performance: One plays Pan; the other plays his shadow, and also handles the ropes that fly the other one around the stage. Just as when they execute a normal ballet lift, the “carrier” has to know the dance precisely. Here, of course, the lifts are perilously high. I watched a “flight and fight” rehearsal in which Pan battles Hook from midair. It’s harder than you might imagine, due to “inertia and pendulum”: The faster the flight, the farther the dancer swings on stopping. That afternoon, Petrocci frequently “pendulumed” into the ship’s mast.

Milwaukee Ballet’s world premiere of Peter Pan takes place May 13-16 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.