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Northern Ballet Theatre - 'Peter Pan'

by Kate Snedeker

February 22, 2005 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

With a handful of fairy dust, some technical wizardry and a cast of talented dancers, Northern Ballet Theatre brings J.M Barrie's classic children' story, 'Peter Pan' from the storybook page to the ballet stage. The colorful production, which debuted last December in Leeds, is strongest when it soars - thanks to Flying by Foy - with a memorable cast sometimes let down by David Nixon's onstage choreography.

The curtain rises to reveal an eerie darkness, the bustling Mrs. Darling startled by the feeling that something is there. And so we are introduced to Peter Pan (and his escapee shadow) danced and flown by Christian Broomhall, one of the company's bright young talents. Broomhall's Peter is youthful and energetic, but with an touching sense of self awareness. It's almost as if though the eternal child, he has experienced something of adulthood...

Broomhall is joined by an exceptional lead cast, with Pippa Moore as Wendy, Christopher Hinton-Lewis as John and baby-faced Simon Kidd as an adorable Michael. The chaos of the Darling nursery is added to by the presence of Nana the dog, for which Victoria Sibson deserves special note. In Peter Mumford's shaggy costume, complete with detailed head, Sibson created one of the most adorable and realistic canine characters in balletic memory.

With Peter's return to the nursery, the flying begins and the story really takes off, literally and literarily. The airborne antics are spectacular, with the complex system of cables allowing the dancers to soar across the stage, up to the rafters and back down again.

Nixon is at his most inventive and fascinating in these early scenes, where the combination of cables and choreography allow Peter to fluidly glide around the nursery, sliding up close to the sleeping children and weightlessly climbing around the furniture, seemingly to defy gravity. The flying also allows Broomhall to be freed from the limitation of a fairly small stage area, and show off his impressive and powerful dancing.

Peter and the Darling children seamlessly soar from London to Never Never Land, thanks to Peter Mumford's inventive set, centered around a massive turntable. And the highlight of the production is the journey to Never Never Land, with the four dancers soaring against a scrim-shaded backdrop of twinkling starts. It is truly magical to see these dancers with their amazing balletic bodies freed from the normal confines of gravity, and able to explore, stretch and dance in three dimensions.

Once in Never Never Land, we are met with a cast of Lost Boys, Pirates, Mermaids and puppet animals, though beyond the delightful vine entangled cave of the Lost Boys, the sets seem a little bare. Also, the final fight between Hook, danced by David Kierce, and Peter is a bit anti-climactic for we do not have the tension of Wendy walking the plank and her miraculous rescue by Peter. But all the dancers attack their roles with relish, and each character is unique and memorable - no carbon copy corps to be found here.

The crocodile and the scary creatures of the forest are portrayed by wonderful life size puppets animated via poles attached to black lycra-clad dancers. Yet, the other puppet character, Tinker Bell - was one of the weak points of the production. The little fairy was portrayed by a doll that was attached to another black lycra-clad dancer by long poles, which allowed the doll to be manipulated. With rare exception, the black did little to disguise the dancer, who looked like a strange robot, and very out of place in the innocent world of Never Never Land. Why not use this character to create a real dancing role - fairies abound in story ballets - Nixon has no shortage of talented ballerinas.

And herein lies one of disappointments of the production - for while it is a theatrical ballet, there is precious little interesting ballet. The scene for the mermaids shows promise, but by trapping them in impossibly narrow fish-tailed costumes, Nixon limits what his corps can do on pointe. And though energetic, his choreography for the Lost Boys, Pirates and the fight scene becomes repetitive and has more to do with moving the story on than building any choreographic depth.

However, in the scene for the Neverbird, who rescues Peter from the rock, there is some intriguing choreography. Natalie Leftwich, also Mrs. Darling, brings to life this delicate, yet powerful avian creature, her high extensions very impressive. The doubled roles are perhaps quite intentional - the bird rescues Peter, but seems to bring out a tender, more adult side to his character and allows him to remove the THREE eggs from her next, to use it as a boat to safety. And it is Captain Hook, doubled with Mr. Darling, whom Peter fights to 'save' the children.

Nixon seems to play with the more mature sides of his characters, eschewing the pure innocent, Disneyesque approach, and in doing so gives his production a unique and intriguing quality. By showing the tenderness between Peter and Wendy, and introducing this maternal Never-bird creature, we are given a hint that this story about children is also about growing up.

It is Wendy, most particularly, who is pushing the boundary of childhood innocence - we see her playing mother to the children and showing innocent - bordering-on-adolescent-romantic tenderness to Peter. Peter seems to sense this and both attracted to and repelled by the idea of growing up.

In the final scene, he battles with Mrs. Darling who wants her beloved children returned, but the fight has a very mature quality - and when he does return the children, Peter seems torn between staying and leaving. As he finally flies out the window, mother and daughter side by side looking out the window, and one wonders if this Peter might someday return for another generation of Darlings ... and perhaps if Wendy was not the first Darling who made this journey with Peter ...

Thought this 'Peter Pan' lacked in some solid earthbound choreography, magical flying and dedicated, touching dancing made it soar. John Pryce-Jones conducted the NBT Orchestra.

Edited by Staff.

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