Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ron Cunningham's 25th World Premiere with the Sacramento Ballet, "Peter Pan," takes a packed audience to the land of dreams

Artistic directors, Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda, did it again last night. A spectacular World Premier of a timeless story Peter Pan told through the beauty of dance, a beautiful blend of classical ballet and modern dance movements. This was Cunningham’s 25th World Premiere for the Sacramento Ballet in his 27 years of tenure.

The show opened with Wendy Darling, danced by veteran Alexandra Cunningham, and brothers John and Michael, veteran Richard Smith and newcomer John Whisler respectively, all frolicking in their bedroom with Nana the dog. Nana was a hit, a big shaggy dog with a flopping slobbery pink tongue; Alexander Biber worked the crowd well in the role as Nana.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
Animated Christopher Nachtrab who is as talented as a non-vocal actor as he is a dancer paired with the long-limbed elegant Katie Miller as Mr. and Mrs. Darling. Miller’s silk like movements provided a stark contrast to Nachtrab as the rigid and strict patriarch. But the WOW factors of the show came shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Darling exited the scene.

The first was Tinker Bell’s entrance through the large wardrobe in the corner of the elegant set. Maggie Rupp was the enchanting little fairy, a role she confessed to me in an interview that was “a dream come true.” Rupp said she was "inspired by the story ever since she was a little girl"and had loved Tinker Bell.  She added that Tinker Bell was "a little air headed" and fairies, "because they are so tiny, can only hold one emotion at a time." Rupp demonstrated those nuances in the way she danced the role. It was as if she wasn't playing a character. Maggie Rupp WAS Tinker Bell, live and on stage. Her infectious smile and flittering together were worth the price of admission.

Ron Cunningham, known for his superbly choreographed productions, made his World Premiere of Peter Pan both remarkable and memorable with the entrance of Peter Pan  The lovable dancer from London with red curly locks, Rex Wheeler, was adorable as the boy from Neverland who lost his shadow as he came flying through the window head-on towards the audience.. Wheeler’s grand entrance was met by a long round of applause, and I thought for a brief moment the crowd would rise to its feet. Wheeler spun and performed dance moves with perfection, a feat that appeared much more difficult to do in mid air due to the lack of a foundation from which to spring and leap.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
As the story goes, when Peter Pan became enamored with Wendy, Tinker Bell’s infectious smile turned upside down as she became a jealous little fairy, threatened by the other girl, and the talented and animated Rupp, raised the level of drama much to the audience’s delight.

The flight of Peter Pan, Wendy, and her two brothers was an all new experience for the four dancers. This was the first Ballet in which Ron Cunningham incorporated flight; the novel technique added flare to the ballet even though it was a part of the original story line. The harnesses arrived at the ballet only a week prior to the World Premiere, leaving little time for the dancers to get used to their restrictive nature and the feel of moving eloquently while suspended in mid-air. But the Sacramento Ballet is a welled trained a disciplined company, and certainly met the many challenges aptly.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
The scene  transitions from the Darling’s home to the lagoon in Neverland was another novel approach that demonstrated Cunningham’s brilliant artistic mind and collaborative skills. Cunningham employed the artistry of Stephanie Taylor , hand paintings in video scenes.  The depictions of Peter's and the Darling trio’s trip to Neverland were projected on the giant foreground drop and added a new dimension to what otherwise may have been just a quick scenery change.

Once the Darlings accompanied by Peter were over Neverland, Wendy was shot from the sky by the Band of Lost Boys who were enticed by the jealous Tinker Bell. The scene from a critical review standpoint was lacking, but was nonetheless quickly forgotten as the nefarious Captain Hook and his band of pitiful pirates arrived on scene.

Christopher Nachtrab was Captain Hook; his grand appearance was reminiscent of a mutant cross between Yanni and Liberace. Nachtrab told me in an earlier interview that his biggest fear was “The crowd would hate me.” That was not the case however; Nachtrab who is delightful and fun to watch couldn't have wished for a more receptive audience. One of the challenges Nachtrab faced was the precise control his movements to keep from injuring himself or himself with his “hook.” And he did so remarkably well, showing no stricture or dilution of his movements.

There was a hilarious moment in which the audience, or at least I, was not sure whether it was planned or accidental that the crocodile while chasing Hook, lost its head. The head jointed at the back of the neck flipped open and laid on the croc’s back. After two failed attempts to replace it, one by Hook and the other by Smee, the hunched over pirate played by Stefan Calka, it was obvious that it was not planned, but the audience got a rise out of it.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
Laura Winterhalder, as Princess Tiger Lilly, led the band of Indians in a dance which it appeared Cunningham had drawn elements from his famous Carmina Burana. The rhythm of the drums pulsed through my veins as I watched the sleek dancers in a beautiful tribal fusion of modern steps combined with classical. Another scene in which Cunningham's casting ability, choreography and direction proved to be a crowd pleaser.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
As Captain Hook led the captured Lost Boys, another layer of the "not so evil" character was revealed; Nachtrab with his hook hand and his grand captain display led the parade on a tricycle.

Photo Credit: Keith Sutter
The jealous Tinker Bell confided in Captain Hook about her jealousy of Wendy.  This led the scheming hook to devise a plan to place a bomb in a cake.  But the cake was abandoned by Wendy when she and her brothers and the band of Lost Boys were taken captive.

The climax was nearing.  Tinker Bell realizing that Peter was going for the cake, snatched it up and ran away, the bomb exploding offstage.  Tinker Bell lay there lifeless.

Peter Pan stepped to the front of the stage and shouted, "Do you believe in fairies?"  He returned to the lifeless Tinker Bell, and back to the front of the stage.  "If you believe in fairies, clap your hands," he exclaimed in his British accent.  The audience erupted in applause, and in response, Tinker Bell's legs began flitting rapidly.  It was truly a magical moment!

Credit: Keith Sutter
If you want to know the rest of the story, get to the Sacramento Community Theater and see it.  It is a brilliant production with only three more shows.

It will make your Valentine's weekend memorable and take you back in time to where dreams were not just imagined, they were real.

This Ballet deserves none less than FIVE STARS!  Ron Cunningham and the Sacramento Ballet have done it again!

Tickets for the show can be purchased by clicking this link: Peter Pan tickets. 

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