When you’re asked, ‘If you could have any sort of superhuman power, what would it be?’ Mine was always flying,” said Carly Wheaton. “Probably because it’s not possible. You see birds do it. You see other creatures that are so ethereal do it. But I don’t think any human really knows what that feels like.”
Wheaton (along with several other dancers) is about to find out what it really feels like to fly as she journeys to Neverland as Wendy in BalletMet’s production of Peter Pan. Along with a number of special effects, the ballet will feature extended sequences of choreographed flight.
“There’s a certain freedom to it; I think a lot of dancers feel we get close to it when we jump and we leap and we get tossed in the air by men, but nothing as close as this,” said Wheaton. “We’re all really excited to fly.”
Michael Pink, the artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet, created and choreographed Peter Pan in 2010. It was broadcast nationally on PBS and now comes to be restaged in Columbus with a spectacular entourage of pirates and lost boys amid ships, coves, and the twilit London skyline.
The illusion of weightlessness, and the effortless appearance of flight is the result of technical achievement—it is not a simple matter of moving or dancing in the air.
“We can’t create any force from our feet to turn,” noted Grace-Anne Powers, who will be doubling the role of Wendy with Wheaton.
“Everything we do as artists, whether you’re a performing actor or a singer or dancer or musician, takes a lot of training to get to the point of control, and being able to do things in a reliable, consistent way,” explained Pink. “And the same is said of flying. Everything about flying [on stage] is not intuitive. You do movements that you would not think you would have to do to control your spin, to control your turn.”
Flying also entails landing, and with the number of set pieces to navigate in each scene, there is no room for guesswork.
“You have to do the same things over and over again so when Peter flies into the nursery for the first time, and then flies around the nursery and steps onto the mantelpiece—he has to know how to do that absolutely every time,” said Pink.
Before it was a children’s novel, Peter Pan was a stage play. Pink’s direction, although rooted in classical dance, incorporates a large amount of that stage acting methodology: creating dialogue, finding objectives, and determining stage relationships—just as an actor would do with a script.
“Once you take the verbal aspects of that away, you have something that has a lot more honesty and depth of narrative. You’d be surprised at how much you can say without using a word,” Pink said.
Telling a story with the only thing a person completely possesses—the body—is the core objective of dance. A challenge to dancers is to be human and relatable onstage, despite the high degree of body training that makes their movement different from ordinary body language.
“As dancers, we know what angry looks like on stage. Or we know what sad or heartbroken looks like on stage,” said Wheaton, who pushes herself to respond to her stage situations in more “human” ways. “In my everyday life, what would I actually do if was upset or if I was excited or curious?”
“I think your eyes—your focus—is very important on stage. You can be doing a step and just by adding your focus at a certain point to make the step look completely different,” said Powers. “I’m sort of a person who nitpicks on everything until I create a character I’m happy with. I’m always sort of playing around, changing things so it becomes real, and it stays fresh.”
Peter Pan includes a certain amount of spectacle added to a classical art form, but balance is the key—that the lighting, costuming, and special effects will support the narrative rather than overshadow it. Pink hopes that the fantastical nature and familiar quality of the story will bring readers of all ages (and not just ballet-goers) to the Ohio Theater to see the written page brought to life.
“Coming to the ballet can be enormously rewarding and entertaining and exciting. And it can be educational in different ways,” said Pink. “So I think it’s an opportunity for people to really escape to Neverland with us.”
Peter Pan will be on stage at the the Ohio Theatre February 10 – 12. For more, visit balletmet.org.