This Saturday and Sunday are the last two performances for Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan at the Academy of Music. We recently heard from two of the dancers (playing Peter Pan and Wendy), but we were also interested in the behind-the-scenes perspective in staging the complex flying sequences. For this production, the flying is not controlled by “eight guys standing in the wings” but is programmed, fully automated, and computer-controlled. We caught up with Brett Perry, a dancer for the Trey McIntyre Project, who helped McIntyre stage the flying sequences on the PA Ballet dancers.
Live Arts: What does the ability to suspend bodies in air allow artistically? And how does the technology of this particular system aid in the creative process?
Brett Perry: I remember being with Trey and the dancers the first day in the theater when they started working with this new flying equipment and noticing how amazing the system was but also how many challenges it would present. When Houston Ballet did Peter Pan in 2002 and 2004, all of the flying was done manually by eight tech guys. This time at Pennsylvania Ballet, all of the flying is computerized. That has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that when all of the flying cues are put into the computer, it will be done forever. Anytime another ballet company wants to do Peter Pan, the flying will be ready to go with little more than a few tweaks here and there. The disadvantage to this system is that it is basically a robot—and robots do not have human instincts. The program doesn’t know when the dancer plies the next move, it is usually going to be a jump. All of those details have to be programmed in and the timing has to be perfect. I talked to Trey about the flying a few days into the rehearsals and he was saying how tedious and time-consuming the flying was. Making a change in the computer and getting it just right was taking hours to perfect. The ability to suspend bodies in the air offers weightlessness that you cannot achieve on the ground. Some partnering that Wendy and Peter do would never work without the assistance of flying.
LA: Did you first use dancers or the computer to put the aerial choreography in place?
BP: I first worked with the dancers who are flying in the studio to prepare them. I wanted to make sure that the dancers knew what they were doing and the musicality before they were harnessed in and flying. I knew that would save time. There is no way for the dancers to actually know what it was going to feel like to be in the harness flying before they are actually strapped in.
LA: How long does it take from the dancers training and adapting to the flying to seeing the actual art of the performance emerge?
BP: Our first theater rehearsal with the dancers was purely the technical side of the flying and programming. I know Trey and the dancers were exhausted after the first week of flying rehearsals. But once the dancers feel confident and the glitches are worked out, I am hoping we will see a smooth and beautiful flying sequence.
LA: How does the vertical choreography (flying) affect the choreography of those dancers sill using the laws of gravity?
BP: It’s an amazing moment for the audience when they first see Peter flying in. He comes in and taps Liza (the maid) on the shoulder and you get a real sense of someone affected by gravity and someone defying gravity. The dancers on the ground will have a real reaction to the dancers in the air. It is impossible not to react to a fellow dancer or friends flying above you.
LA: Is Trey interested in pushing this technology into an even more sophisticated realm?
BP: I think Trey is always thinking about what’s next: how can he push the boundaries to keep this art form moving forward. Trey is innovative and always pushing his dancers and his team to take everything to the next level. It is exciting to think about what happens next.
Pennsylvania Ballet’s company premiere of Peter Pan, May 12 & 13 at The Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Choreography by Trey McIntyre. Music by Sir Edward Elgar, arranged by Niel DePonte, and performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra.Tickets here.
Photos by ALexander Iziliaev.