Dance Review: Sarah Kaufman on Washington Ballet's Splendid 'Peter Pan'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

A lot rides on the slender, nearly invisible wires in the Washington Ballet's "Peter Pan," and it's not just the dancers dangling from them. With its mix of Victorian-era ideals and child-centric fantasy, J.M. Barrie's cherished tale of a boy who can fly is a natural for ballet treatment -- but the chance to send dancers somersaulting through space acres above the stage is the real key to success here. The Washington Ballet takes ample opportunity to do this, making its "Peter Pan," choreographed in 2001 by Artistic Director Septime Webre, an altogether winning production for children.

It is such a sound children's ballet, in fact, that to fully appreciate it you need, say, a 6-year-old at your elbow. I was lucky enough to be in such company at Thursday's opening at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, where the ballet will be performed through tomorrow evening. To witness the gasp of astonishment and delight when Peter (Jonathan Jordan) comes blazing through the nursery window with the aid of his well-hidden harness is the production's greatest reward.

Even when they are not flying, the dancers put on a lively show. The fittingly boyish Jordan has technique to burn, as well as hunk appeal, and in a scene in which he dons a tulle skirt and veil, he pulls off a fine comic turn in wooing Captain Hook (John Goding, in one of his funniest character roles) away from the captive Princess Tiger Lily.

Maki Onuki's natural radiance and soft physicality make her an apt Wendy, the winsome darner of shadows and reader of bedtime stories whom Peter befriends and lures to Never-Never Land. Webre's florid choreography made much use of Onuki's flexibility and extravagantly arched feet. Alex Sargent, an 11-year-old student at the Washington School of Ballet, nearly steals the show as Michael Darling, Wendy's excitable rascal of a younger brother; he shares a believably knockabout rapport with big brother John (Tyler Savoie) and makes an unforgettable entrance on Luis R. Torres's tick-tocking, hip-hopping Crocodile.

Some of Webre's best choreographic moments are not drawn from the original source, such as Peter's duet in drag with Hook; backed up by the other pirates, the scene turns into a yo-ho-hoedown that sends up ballet conventions from "Giselle" through "Les Sylphides." A sextet of pirate wenches have their sunnily rum-soaked moment on the deck of the Jolly Roger, and there's a lovely pure-dance section for the odalisque-like Indian maidens and Tiger Lily (Sona Kharatian). The entire cast looks fetching in Claudia Lynch's color-drenched costumes -- the pirates are especially fabulous in a kind of glam-rock-star way -- and Jay Depenbrock and Holly Highfill's set designs give the ballet a storybook look with a contemporary edge.

My quibbles are few, but they bear mentioning. Chief among them is the music by Carmon DeLeone, music director of the Cincinnati Ballet, which has a few serviceable tunes threaded throughout largely unremarkable Broadway-musical mush. It's also recorded, and sounded it. I wish Webre made more use of Tinkerbell (Rui Huang), who is an afterthought here. The ballet's first act is slow going, because there's no emotional pull -- you don't get a sense of tingly anticipation or parental anxiety or anything else that might set up the drama of the Darling children's departure from the familiar.

Likewise, the ending feels off-base. Kharatian, doing double duty as Mrs. Darling, sweeps around in her empty nursery in a solo that feels too energetic and large-scale for a woman who we are to believe is grief-stricken. Dancewise, Webre's moments of sadness and longing look a lot like his moments of happiness. But then the children fly in, and you can't fault that.

Performances of "Peter Pan" continue, with cast changes, today at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 1 and 5:30 p.m.

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