Some local arts organizations may get ground down in the recession, but for Madison Ballet, which added a professional component this season, the stars look well aligned. The premiere of its all-new Peter Pan this weekend at the Capitol Theater is the company's second production with the soloist-driven configuration. The first, our annual Nutcracker, had a few luscious moments, but Peter Pan's a whole new game. Artistic director W. Earle Smith's buoyant neoclassical choreography's never looked better than it does with these strong young dancers to carry it off. The sets and costumes are lavish. The Stewart Wallace score is clever and contemporary. Maestro John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra will be in the pit.
Why Peter Pan? For Smith, it's autobiographical. "People want Peter Pan to grow up, but he refuses. It's a story about not doing what everyone expects of you. That's me. I get it from my father, who pushed me to be whoever I wanted to be. Once I decided to do this ballet, the music pulled me in - it lends itself perfectly to my choreographic style."
It wouldn't be Peter Pan without flying - a new toy in Smith's choreographic kit. ZFX Flying Company out of Louisville - Peter Pan experts - did the rigging. "As a choreographer, your parameters are gravity, space and the dancer," says Smith. "You take away gravity, it opens up an unbelievable realm of possibilities."
Though Peter Pan's usually a play, it's been the basis for various ballets and ballet scores. It's theatrical - a fine vehicle for student dancers who round out the production. There's fairy dust and Nana the dog nanny. Neverland's full of pirates, Indians, lost boys and mermaids.
But in Smith's hands, it's not just another story ballet. For starters, the show's gorgeously cast. Nikki Wilson Hefko, whose slinky Arabian pas in Nutcracker was just a prelude to what she can really do, is Peter Pan.
"It's a challenge," Wilson Hefko says. "Earle's Pan is being choreographed on us - we've had a lot of freedom to develop our characters. It's tricky playing a little boy, 'cause I'm not a boy. You have to figure out how to pull it off and make it look genuine."
I watched rehearsal last week and I'll vouch for this: Wilson Hefko utterly inhabits the role. The rest of the cast is equally convincing. Mad City's best-known ballerina, Genevieve Custer-Weeks, makes a fiery Tiger Lily. Bryan Cunningham looks like he's been playing Captain Hook all his life. Jennifer Tierney, Nutcracker's elastic Snow Queen, is an archetypal Wendy. Beth Heneghan, who came up through Smith's studio company, reveals sparking chops in her professional debut as Tinkerbell.
Ultimately the proof of a ballet's in the dancing, and that's the big surprise. Unlike Peter Pan, Madison Ballet's grown up.