We watched a rehearsal of Peter Pan at Ballet Excel Ohio (BXO) in Cuyahoga Falls last Sunday. It was a very different company from the one we saw last spring when we watched their Magic Flute. Several of the older dancers have graduated from high school and moved on leaving a much younger company of mostly middle schoolers. But young as they are, the current company is still totally engaged in the production, emotionally expressive in keeping with the narrative, and surprisingly proficient at their ballet dancing.
Consider seven of the younger dancers cast as Pirate Moppers. They have mops and, yes, they swab the deck of the pirate ship. What can you do with a role like that? For these young dancers, plenty. Their facial expressions and body language express oceans of boredom and resentment. The life of a pirate is not what they’d hoped. But, summoned by Captain Hook, they instantly become frightened and subservient, cowering at his feet to polish his shoes.
High Schooler Abbie Mathews disappears into her role as preening, cowardly Hook. She’s greatly helped by her costume, a splendid Restoration ensemble complete with dandified coat, hat, and hook. Her mustache looks to be a work of tonsorial artistry, shaved and waxed to perfection. By some combination of a stiff upper lip and spirit gum she keeps it on throughout the rehearsal without adjustment.
As Tinkerbell, Elizabeth Coughlin is also greatly helped by her costume, with substantial wings that hold their shape and position throughout the dancing. Her makeup sharpens her facial features and emphasizes her role as a fairy among humans.
Other than Hook and Tinkerbell, most of the costumes for Peter Pan are much simpler than the ornate costume plots for Ballet Excel’s productions of (https://coolcleveland.com/2017/03/youth-ensemble-ballet-excel-ohio-presents-two-dances-akron-civic-theatre/) The Little Mermaid and (https://coolcleveland.com/2018/03/youthful-ballet-company-ballet-excel-presents-magic-flute-akron-civic-theatre/) The Magic Flute. The Lost Boys and the pirates are nearly all played by girls in appropriately rough and ragged apparel with many a mustache drawn onto the pirates. Wendy (double cast as Vivian Gray and Maggie Stone) appears in a pink nightgown and pointe shoes; her brothers John (Lex Zorich with a top hat and spectacles) and Michael (Sameer Mainali) are both in their PJs. So, the majority of the costumes are relatively simple. The Dog and the Crocodile costumes are unusually effective as animal costumes go. Lilyann Arnold as the Dog is convincingly canine in a white fur suit and a well-made dog’s head. Shawn Arnold as the Crocodile propels himself across the stage with alarming speed on what looks like an auto mechanic’s creeper. Costume Design is credited to Laszlo Berdo, the choreographer, BXO Artistic Director Mia Klinger, and Janet Bolick.
So we have character and emotion hitting the high points of a well-known narrative. There’s also some darn good ballet dancing. When Peter and Tinkerbell first enter the nursery, they show their high, steady arabesques. Tinkerbell’s and Wendy’s pointe work is secure in service of their characters. Peter, John and Michael join in a boy’s trio that shows off their unison allegro dancing. The dancing is amazingly good, especially when you consider that Peter, Tinkerbell, Wendy and John are all danced by Middle Schoolers and Michael is danced by a 5th grader.
The duels between Peter Pan and Captain Hook appear to have been carefully choreographed with safety in mind, but Hook’s sword and Peter’s dagger clash with a satisfying sound of real steel. Kudos to the props department and the dancers.
The rehearsal we watched did not include the set which, as we understand it, will consist of a nursery and a pirate ship. The nursery has windows which the characters fly out of. No, this is not the illusion of flight that involves invisible wires, harnesses, and theatrical rigging, but we’re told that it’s still “pretty cool.” If you see the production, let us know what you think using the comment option below.
The rehearsal we watched also did not include lighting, but Lighting Designer Dennis Dugan was there watching, whispering numbered light cues to his associate. “Number 215 is the dust. Pow!” Later it was, “Story time here. Number 220.”
Something you may not notice from your seats in the Akron Civic is the diversity of this company. According to Klinger, 30% of the dancers are either minority or from underserved groups. Credit the ROAD program, BXO’s outreach program. As Klinger explains it, BXO teaches accessible dance in the schools of Northeast Ohio and identifies the kids who are “ignited” with dance.
“Then we offer those kids a full scholarship to our summer program where we immerse them in high quality dance training. After 2 to 3 summer intensives, we select the kids who seem ready for it and offer them full scholarships to our year round program, scholarships that are renewable through high school. Ignite, immerse, and invest, invest, invest.”
Ballet Excel Ohio performs Peter Pan and a repertoire piece, Symphonic NANsense, at the Akron Civic Theatre on Saturday 3/9/2019 at 2pm and 7pm and on Sunday 3/10/2019 at 2pm. Tickets $25, $18, and $10 at BalletExcelOhio.org or phone the Akron Civic Box Office at 330-253-2488.