Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan Returns to Houston Ballet
“I love my childhood,” mused my son, at age nine, as if he where inhabiting his adult self for an instant. You can’t go home again, unless you are Peter Pan, or Trey McIntyre, who recently returned to Houston to freshen up his charming Peter Pan for the Houston Ballet. Premiered in 2002 and last performed in 2004 during Stanton Welch’s second season, Peter Pan tells a family-friendly story, while examining the darker parts of James M. Barrie’s classic tale.
It’s curious that a story focused on the nostalgia of childhood is in fact nostalgic for all involved; Peter Pan marks a milestone for many. McIntyre created the ballet as he was launching his career as a freelance choreographer, which culminated in the formation of his own, now-renowned troupe, Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), based in Boise, Idaho. The ballet’s first Wendy, Sarah Webb, went on to become a principal dancer and a mother of two. She returns to the role for the third time. Pan is even rich with memories for me, as I had to put myself through Peter Pan U to give my very first dance talk in 2004.
McIntyre Steers his own Ship
For McIntyre, returning to this ballet is a potent reminder of where he was in his own career as a dance maker. “TMP wasn’t even a dream at the point,” remembers McIntyre. By 2002, he had left Houston and was gaining momentum in the ballet world at a steady clip.
The ballet put some closure on his relationship with Ben Stevenson, who nurtured his talent, and gave him the go-ahead to set Peter Pan on the company when plans fell through with another troupe. “I had worked on the ballet for three years. I came to Ben for advice and guidance. He listened to me and said, ‘why don’t we do it?’ I learned storytelling from Ben, and it meant the world to me to have his support,” recalled McIntyre.
Wild Child Peter and Giant Beds
McIntyre shaped the story to appeal to children and adults at the same time, but don’t expect a lady in green tights. His Peter is more feral, wild and raw. “When he first flies into the Darlings’ bedroom, he crouches down like an animal, smelling the children and the surroundings to get his whereabouts,” he says. The princely Joseph Walsh will be sporting dreadlocks as Peter for the first time, while Pan veteran Ilya Kozadayev will be revisiting the role for the last time.
Tinkerbell is a smaller role, while, Nana, the dog, is missing altogether. Instead, McIntyre plays up the pirate gang, giving Hook some marvelously theatrical dancing. “These guys crack me up,” quips McIntyre, watching a room full of pirates and three Captain Hooks. “I can see myself in Captain Hook. Something about the battle between authority and controlling one’s child-like impulses. Hook wants to be part of the gang and master of them at the same time.”
McIntyre further complicates the character of Hook by giving him a son, James, who has a haunting solo, which was originally danced by a woman. This time around it will be danced by a man, as the choreographer is giving himself the freedom to respond to the company in front of him in 2013.
The setting has a fantastical feel. Former Houston Ballet production director, Thomas Boyd, created a world as if seen through a child’s eyes with enormous beds and a pirate ship made of human bones. “I wanted to play with scale,” says McIntyre. The pirate ship resembles a human rib-cage; it’s both scary and whimsical, playing off the ambiguity embedded in the piece.
Christina Giannelli, now a freelance lighting designer based in New York and Houston, remembers the experience of working with McIntyre on this ballet well. Much about the choreographer’s approach shaped her work. “I particularly enjoy his retelling of the story and the dimension that he gives to to the Captain Hook character,” recalls Giannelli. “He took the idea of Peter and his shadow and expanded on that, so you will see that shadows and shadow play appear throughout the ballet, both in light and color and in the development of the character and story. It was our first extensive use of projections for a ballet created in house.”
Webb’s Wonderful Wendy
The Peter Pan years, 2002-2004, were a time of transition for the company, as they said their farewells to Stevenson and became acquainted with the Aussie boy-wonder, Welch. Like Wendy, the company was continuing to grow up.
Only five dancers remain in the company from the 2002 production, and one of them was Sara Webb. Although her talent was recognized by Stevenson, she became the first principal promoted by Welch. “I was a newly promoted soloist in the Company and just starting to ‘grow’ in my career,” recalls Webb. “Wendy was such a wonderful role to start with. Wendy changes from a girl to a woman during the ballet, and in a way, so did I.”
She finds returning to Peter Pan slightly surreal on so many levels. “I can’t wait for my children to see this, yet I wonder if will be able to be true to the youthfulness of Wendy’s character after all of these years,” muses Webb.
Under McIntyre’s hand, the role is pivotal in the story. “Wendy is such a complicated character. She is the bridge between the child and adult world, and she exists in both,” says McIntyre. “It’s fantasy and play where she gets to try on the motherhood.”
A dancer of rare talent, Webb is taking the opportunity to deepen her interpretation of the role. “The steps are the same and so is the story, but my approach comes from a place of experience and a better understanding of who Wendy became and why,” she says.
Seeing Peter with a mother’s eyes, Webb believes he is a representation of childhood itself. “At the end of the ballet, when Wendy says good-bye to Peter, she is not really saying good-bye to the character, but is more putting childhood away in her heart,” she says. “What I didn’t understand then was that, when Wendy holds her child at the end of the ballet, she begins a whole new chapter of wonder and fun.”