Peter Pan (2010)

Milwaukee Ballet
Duration 105’
3 Act Ballet for full orchestra, with children’s choir
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Pink
Design: Rick Graham
Lighting design: David Grill
Costume design: Judanna Lynn
First performed at the Marcos Centre, Milwaukee in May 2010 by the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Pasquale Laurino, with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir
Original Cast: Mark Petrocci (Peter Pan)

Michael Pink’s production of Peter Pan had been in the offing for three or four years before it got going in earnest. As early as 2006, he asked the composer to produce a small series of generic soundbites, as a kind of taster of what a Peter Pan by Philip Feeney would sound like. In fact some of these soundbites made it into the full score; the inspirational music for the journey to Neverland, Tinkerbell’s first entrance, and the bucolic main theme of the Pirates’ Bacchanale were among those first ideas that today make up the final score.

It was actually Feeney’s first collaboration with Michael Pink for over ten years, and it would prove to be very different from its predecessors, not in the warmth of the creative interaction, but in the fact that it was entirely accomplished over the internet via skype. The synopsis was thrashed out at length in long and productive video conferences, and the composer was then able to send audio files scene by scene, which could then be discussed and edited, fine-tuned and minutely sculptured in order to fit the well-known J.M.Barrie story like a glove. Even the score and the parts were delivered electronically (although some of the very final edits were done on the flight to Chicago!).

Only the sound set up needed to be organised in situ, which necessitated a shopping trip to the MAC shop in Milwaukee, and hours backstage to programme the software. The sound in Peter Pan consists mainly of sound effects that are essential to the story, the dog barking, the ticking of the crocodile, moorland birds shrieking etc. Some sounds that were originally designed to be sound effects ended up being played by the excellent percussion department. The music for the pirates is thick with blade sounds, cutlass scrapes and the like; rather than have them as sound effect cues, it was much easier to have them played live. At one point the score asks for a birch that is beaten on to a piece of wood, and it was splendid and heart-warming to see a leafy branch appear in the orchestra pit!

Initially the choreographer toyed with the idea of narration. It was set in 1940s London, during the Blitz, which was a generation on from its traditional period. There was, Pink felt, a whole range of information that could not be transmitted without words. So the first part of the music was created with sufficient in-built orchestral suspension to allow space for the narration, an idea that is perfectly natural and appropriate for the ballet as story-telling is very much a potent theme in Peter Pan. But in the end it was decided to tell the tale in pure movement, allowing the audience to fill whatever gap there might be. Some of that suspension remains in the early parts of Act 1, creating a wonderful sense of magic and expectation. The invitation for audience interaction can be seen at its most intense in the moving scene of Tinkerbell’s resuscitation at the end of Act 2. As in the play, Peter Pan himself appeals to the audience, whose little bright lights breathe life back into the fairy. In the suspended quietness a single tinkling bell is heard – and it was essential to find the right magical bell sound.

This scene is driven by the pure sound of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, adding the innocence of youth to the orchestral Neverland soundworld. Although very enchanting and effective, this short scene in itself could not really warrant the inclusion of the choir. So Michael Pink suggested that the choir be added to the Lagoon scene, which had already been written. Yes, they could be the mermaids, but the question then was what words would they sing. A new language, mermaid, was invented, by taking a couple of key sentences from the J.M.Barrie play and reversing the audio, created a strange mystical otherworldly runic tongue, which naturally the children mastered with ease.
The speed of a lot of the music for Peter Pan is very fast, amongst other things a great tribute to the Milwaukee Orchestra. So much so, that the full-length score was some one hundred and fifty pages longer than a ballet of the equivalent length such as Dracula. In particular the music for Tinkerbell is extremely rapid, electric and fragmentary, flitting from one idea to another, from instrument to instrument, which perfectly matches the character of the cantankerous fairy. Of course it is easy enough to do this on computer-generated software instruments, but it is infinitely more exciting hearing this mercurial music dart around a live orchestra pit. However, it was necessary to supplement the orchestra with a keyboard, in particular to complement the harp part in some of the more elaborate moments.

In the original synopsis, the journey to Neverland, which is so visually arresting and exciting, was not the end of the act. We saw them flying into Neverland and encountering the pirates on the frozen river, the Indian squaws, and the lost boys. It wasn’t until it was clear that the Bloomsbury act would be so substantial and so compelling that the interval point for act one was changed. Now we know the ballet, it’s hard to imagine that the journey to Neverland, past the second star to the right, wasn’t ever the button for the end Act one. It feels so natural. In any case it gives Mr. Darling more time to change into Captain Hook.

The production of Michael Pink’s Peter Pan was generously supported by the Ann and Joseph Heil Foundation, and by Sue and Allen “Bud” Selig. What is brilliant is that Bud Selig is the commissioner for baseball in the U.S. and still supports the ballet! Fantastic!