Critic’s Notebook: ‘Peter Pan,’ a ballet enigma
This strange ballet has been playing out in my head recently: The dancers come out on stage and move in complete silence. After a minute or two, audience members begin to shift in their seats. Children lose focus and start asking “When will it be over?” Five or 10 minutes of this, and people are asking for their money back. This would only happen, of course, if, for some bizarre reason, a ballet company decided it no longer needed music. It couldn’t really happen, but Pennsylvania Ballet raises the question with its marketing materials for Peter Pan, which opens Thursday. Postcards and advertisements mention Trey McIntyre as choreographer of the company premiere. But if you want to know whether there’s music, you have to go the ballet’s website. There you learn that there is music, and that it was written by Edward Elgar.
This strange ballet has been playing out in my head recently: The dancers come out on stage and move in complete silence. After a minute or two, audience members begin to shift in their seats. Children lose focus and start asking "When will it be over?" Five or 10 minutes of this, and people are asking for their money back.
This would only happen, of course, if, for some bizarre reason, a ballet company decided it no longer needed music. It couldn't really happen, but Pennsylvania Ballet raises the question with its marketing materials for Peter Pan, which opens Thursday. Postcards and advertisements mention Trey McIntyre as choreographer of the company premiere. But if you want to know whether there's music, you have to go the ballet's website. There you learn that there is music, and that it was written by Edward Elgar.
Ballet companies routinely slight the music (as do many critics in reviews), so Pennsylvania Ballet isn't the first to commit this small crime. But isn't it reasonable to expect one art form to be respectful of another? "Music is the floor we dance on," said Balanchine. Do the musicians in the pit contribute less to the experience than dancers on stage?
So what about this Elgar score? Bernstein wrote music to Peter Pan. But we didn't know of a take by Elgar.
Turns out there isn't one. The music for this production was stitched together from various Elgar pieces. According to a ballet spokeswoman, the source material comes from: Wand of Youth Suites No. 1 & 2; The Sanguine Fan; Falstaff, symphonic study, Op. 68; "Mazurka" from Three Character Pieces, Op. 10, No.1; Symphony No. 1, Op. 55;Pomp and Circumstance March #3; In the South (Alassio) Op. 50; The Crown of India Suite, Op. 66; and Three Bavarian Dances Op. 2.
Niel DePonte — music director and conductor of Oregon Ballet Theatre and principal percussionist of the Oregon Symphony — is the arranger.
Why doesn't Pennsylvania Ballet mention Elgar somewhere in the marketing? "Our full season brochure has info on the music for all ballets. For production-specific materials [e.g. postcards, billboards, print ads, etc.], there is not always enough space to include a composer's name," said a company spokeswoman. But if there's room for the name of the choreographer, why not the composer? And actually, there's a lot of white space on the postcard I received in the mail.
The ballet's website says that this Peter Pan comes "complete with spectacular flying sequences, swashbuckling swordfights, and costumes inspired by punk fashion." Pixie dust is also mentioned. But if there's magic in this piece, Elgar might also have something to do with it, and he deserves a little credit. As it is, he comes through in this venture as just one of the Lost Boys.
A lot of thought went into the music, says DePonte. Here's a Q&A with the composer/conductor/arranger:
Peter Dobrin: Why did you choose Elgar's music to score Peter Pan?
Niel DePonte: Trey McIntyre and I actually started with the music of many composers — Tchaikovsky, Korngold, Elgar and others. When we flew to Houston to meet with music director Ermanno Florio [where the production was premiered], he suggested that we use the music of only one composer — Mendelssohn, perhaps. But as I had already spent about two years getting into Trey's head about what the dramatic arc would be of the ballet, I realized that the only composer who had been prolific enough to offer as many different moods and scenic contexts as we had in mind, and who wrote suites as well as long-form works, was Elgar. But I was limited by copyright laws to works that had been written before c. 1926, so that prohibited works from the last eight years of his creative life. I also stayed away from Elgar's most famous works: Enigma, the concerti, Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, etc.
PD: Elgar and Sir James Barrie were contemporaries — did they know each other, or the others' work?
PD: Elgar's The Starlight Express is a story similar in some ways to Peter Pan. Did you consider using music from that score?
NDP: I am surprised that I did not, actually. But it didn't come up on the radar screen during the period of building the piece.
PD: How did you choose the source music — was it all music previously known to you, or did you go out and do listening for music that might work?
NDP: A little of both. Trey and I kept finding new works and trading CDs back and forth. There are some 22 pieces used during the ballet. Many are abridged, some are used whole, and there are a few measures of my own composition, carefully reproduced in Elgar's orchestrational style that are used as connectors between scenes, or form endings of scenes where we needed one.
PD: How did you decide on an order for the music? Was a narrative for the ballet described to you by the choreographer?
NDP: Yes, Trey had the libretto already worked out. I had made what I call these "compilation scores" before. I created a version of Nutcracker for Oregon Ballet Theatre in 1993, I believe, that interpolated some of Tchaikovsky's other music to flesh out the narrative in Act 2. I also created "bridge" music between divertissements for then-artistic director James Canfield (we no longer use that version, having gone back to the traditional music). I worked on a score for a ballet titled ADIN with current artistic director Christopher Stowell that used my orchestration of Rachmaninoff songs and the famous "Vocalise" for a four-scene work back in 2001. So that got me started on compiling works into a fluid ballet score. Then came Peter Pan.
PD: How much did you orchestrate or re-orchestrate all or some of the pieces?
NDP: Most of the writing is Elgar's. I take manipulating the works of others very seriously, and take great care to keep as much of the originals intact as I can given the needs of the choreographer. The cuts and abridgments are the most that I do with various scenes and movements of works. I try to be sure that they all work musically as well as choreographically.
PD: How did you compensate for pieces being in different keys? Did you transpose anything, or is it all in its original key?
NDP: If memory serves, most things are in their original keys. I may have transposed one or two, but I don't think so.
PD: Did you set out to lead listeners to sense, in the mind's ear, that the music for Peter Pan is in fact a single piece?
NDP: Absolutely. Obviously, in a three-act ballet, it isn't "one piece" but I have had professional musicians who have heard the score say that it seems like it was written for the ballet and not a compilation of 22 works. That makes me happy.
A version of this article appears on Peter Dobring's blog, at www.philly.com/artswatch. Contact him at 215-854-5611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday-May 13 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Street. Tickets: $20-$140. 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org