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Review: OBT’s ‘fantabulous’ ‘Peter Pan’

Trey McIntyre's lush and lavish version for Oregon Ballet Theatre of J.M. Barrie's classic fantasy is a treat for the forever young and those who grow up, too.

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Carly Wheaton as Wendy and Nicholas Sakai as Peter in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of Trey McIntyre’s “Peter Pan.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Fantabulous!” one young audience member declared after the opening performance by Oregon Ballet Theatre of Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, and I have to agree. 

With costumes designed by Jeanne Button, sets by Thomas Boyd, and lights by Christina R. Gianelli, this just may be the most visually satisfying production I’ve seen in half a century of attending performances at the Keller. (Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, with sets by Henk Pander, costumes by Ric Young, and lights by Peter West, and a production of Tosca for which the Portland Opera borrowed sets and costumes from the English National Opera are possible exceptions.)

As a choreographer, McIntyre approaches the visual aspects of his ballets in much the way modern choreographer Martha Graham did, integrating them seamlessly with the dancing. When Peter Pan was conceived here in Portland 23 years ago and made on Houston Ballet a year later (it premiered at the city’s Wortham Theater Center on March 14, 2002), McIntyre told the production department there precisely what he wanted, and the New York based Button the same. Button, according to her New York Times obituary, had a reputation “as an ideal collaborator—someone who could integrate the visual expectations of the directors, fellow set and lighting designers, and performers …”

She and the people at Houston Ballet certainly delivered: The first act’s period furniture, Victorian costumes, masks for the not-so-Darling parents and Liza, the nursemaid with whom McIntyre replaced Nana the dog, and the truly extraordinary lights let the audience know immediately that what we were about to see would bear no relationship whatsoever to Disney’s sentimental cuteness.   

Isaac Lee as Captain Hook cavorts onstage as the crew looks on. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The second act’s Neverland includes a lagoon with mermaids in “water”-dappled unitards, Lost Boys in unkempt wigs (Peter Pan’s is bright red), and pirates in fairly standard costumes topped with hats that, ahem, bear a resemblance to Mickey Mouse ears. Their stark-looking ship is so realistic that I worried about the dancers getting splinters. Boyd plays with scale here—a toy boat is big enough to hold a Lost Boy or two, and there is a jaw-snapping crocodile minus the ticking clock, all of which frames a lot of very active dancing.

Saturday afternoon’s cast — all of it, from the principals to the kids from OBT’s School — also delivered, dancing, alas, to a recorded compilation of Sir Edward Elgar’s surprisingly dramatic music assembled by OBT’s former music director Niel De Ponte in collaboration with McIntyre. 

That’s no small achievement: McIntyre’s choreographic take on British author J.M.Barrie’s tale of the boy who refuses to grow up and the girl who decides to become a loving, responsible adult demands nuanced, layered acting as well as the classical technique laced with modernism that is McIntyre’s signature style.  And some of the dancers must take to the air, and dance on it. This they did with ease and aplomb, technical skill, and delight in the first performance, taking the audience with them. McIntyre is knowledgeable about aerial dance; he’s done it himself. His last performance as a dancer was here in Portland, in the ill-conceived Spirits in 2001.

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This Peter Pan contains both broad comedy and satire. Michael Linsmeier, dancing the role of John Darling, who is about four, is responsible for the former, capering around the nursery in Act One, refusing to get in bed and stay there.  Linsmeier has been honing his comedic skills for some time now, in Bournonville’s Napoli and La Sylphide and also in Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The pirate ship is part of the ballet’s captivating design. Photo: Yi Yin

As Mr. and Mrs. Darling, Brian Simcoe and Eva Burton in Act One provided some of the satire in a pas de deux that can best be described as stuffy. The masks they wear make them look distant, unemotional, buttoned up, which is the way Barrie presents them in his novel. Add the busily self-important new nursemaid, Liza, performed at the matinee by Leigh Goldberger, and the minuet they all dance as they exit the nursery, and you have a terrific sendup of late 19th century British mores.

Two pas de deux in this ballet drive the story forward the same time that they look back. The first, in Act One, takes place in the nursery when Carly Wheaton, as Wendy, recognizes Nicholas Sakai, dancing the title role, as her long-lost brother Peter Darling. A meeting that begins with fear on her part ends with a duet of such fond tenderness that I was close to tears.

The second is in Act Two, when Wheaton dances with Isaac Lee, in the role of Captain Hook. Lee performs a slightly pompous, quite vain, and faintly vulnerable Hook, and while they dance a so-called movie is performed in a structure downstage right, which shows that Hook’s hand was damaged not by a crocodile but by a sadistic schoolteacher. I found this a distraction; the kids who were my seatmates did not. The Lost Boys and the pirates engage in a lot of swordplay in this act, rescuing the mermaid captured by the latter, and saving their own skins, too. 

The Darling children then fly home to their London house, escorted by Peter Pan, who wants Wendy to return to Neverland with him and mother the Lost Boys. She refuses, and resumes her place in the family as the older responsible sister. We see her tenderly cradling a baby in a rocking chair: Implicit in this vignette is that she will become a more overtly loving mother than Mrs. Darling.

Wendy (Carly Wheaton) dances out of the shadows in Trey McIntyre’s “Peter Pan.” Photo: Yi Yin

Tinkerbell, performed fleetly by Hannah Davis, one of OBT’s most versatile dancers, is omnipresent both physically and symbolically via the lights. Over the years, McIntyre has fine-tuned and changed her role: Initially she symbolized the power of art, and to some degree she still does. She’s a guide, a leader; each of us can make of her what we will.

That’s a characteristic of McIntyre’s oeuvre in general: Much of it is open to viewer interpretation. And here I’ll make a disclaimer. I have been following his work since 1993, when I saw a piece titled Mantis performed in Seattle, commissioned by Pacific Northwest Ballet for its now defunct Offstage Series. In the intervening years I have written a good deal about him and his work for a number of publications, including this one, interviewed him extensively, and gotten to know him well.

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Peter Pan will be performed four more times this weekend.  Go! And be sure to check the OBT website for casting and ticket information.

Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan

  • Company: Oregon Ballet Theatre
  • Where: Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St., Portland
  • Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24; noon Sunday, Feb. 25
  • Ticket Information: Here

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Dance

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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One Response

  1. Much is owed to Houston Ballet’s repetiteur Dawn Scannell who staged the ballet on OBT’s dancers, as well as the choreographer who was in town for two weeks fine-tuning it and creating a bit of new movement.

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