In 2000, when Cincinnati Ballet commissioned him to create a new ballet version of Peter Pan, choreographer Septime Webre set himself two distinct goals.
"One was to create a very 'dancy' production that would really challenge the dancers and their technique, and the other to connect to audiences of all ages," says Webre by phone from Washington, D.C., where he is artistic director of The Washington Ballet.
Webre's adaptation is both the newest and among the most frequently performed ballet versions of J.M. Barrie's classic tale. On Feb. 16-18, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre joins the many U.S. companies who've added the family-friendly production to their repertoires.
Webre's Peter Pan -- not to be confused with recently retired PBT principal dancer Jiabin Pan -- does his high-flying by wire. Using an industry-standard theatrical-rigging system, Webre's Peter, along with Wendy Darling and siblings John and Michael, spend quite a bit of time airborne.
The ballet, set to a Disney-esque original score by Carmen DeLeone, has the broad appeal and charm of The Nutcracker. In telling the story of the boy who refuses to grow up, Webre eschewed a heavy reliance on dance mime. Instead, he streamlined the narrative and infused the two-hour production with a large amount of serious dancing mixed with slapstick humor.
Webre's Pan includes the bumbling antics of the ballet's pirates, a hip-hop dancing crocodile, and the playful romping of the Darlings' sheepdog, Nana. Yet there are also several tender pas de deux for Wendy and Peter, a grand classical group dance for Tiger Lily and her Indian maidens, and plenty of bravura dancing segments for Peter.
In past productions, Webre has added some surprises. In a joint Ohio Ballet/Dayton Ballet performance I saw in 2001, these included a cross-dressing Peter pretending to be a maiden to distract Captain Hook and free a captured Tiger Lily; recognizable sendups of ballet classics; and a tango dance for Hook and the crocodile.
Hook is played by PBT principal dancer Christopher Rendall-Jackson. "He is kind of a pompous idiot," says Rendall-Jackson of the Captain. "Although he is pretty ridiculous and full of himself, at the same time [he] manages to terrorize the inhabitants of Never Never Land."
Like Hook, the ballet's other characters -- along with its sets, costumes and overall feel -- reflect the childhood wonder and magic of Barrie's tale. That, as much as the level of the dancing, is what accounts for the ballet's popularity.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presents Peter Pan Fri., Feb. 16-Sun., Feb. 18. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $16-78.50. 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org