When Trey McIntyre started conceptualizing a ballet version of Peter Pan, he didn’t realize quite what he was in for. “I didn’t feel like I was making an epic production,” he remembers. “It wasn’t until we were really into it that I realized, oh gosh, this is a LOT of layers!”
The story of Peter Pan (the source material McIntyre turned to was the 1911 J.M. Barrie novel titled, Peter and Wendy) is complex and layered enough on the page. Adapting it for the stage, for dancers’ bodies and audiences’ eyes and ears, proved to be a massive undertaking—and a richly rewarding one.
Full Circle Moment
In a true full-circle fashion, McIntyre’s inspiration to choreograph Peter Pan came from OBT itself, which commissioned the ballet from him well over twenty years ago. Inspired by the idea from the start and feeling very connected to the story, McIntyre eagerly got to work assembling his artistic collaborators (including costume and set designers Jeanne Button and Tom Boyd, as well as Niel DePonte, who arranged the Edward Elgar score) and considering how to present the many threads, themes and characters of the book. By the time OBT unfortunately lost funding for the project, McIntyre and his team had invested so much of themselves in the concept that they decided to keep at it. They wouldn’t let a year’s work go to waste.
Disappointed but undeterred, McIntyre turned to his mentor, Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson, for advice on the synopsis he’d come up with for the ballet (at the time, McIntyre was Houston Ballet’s resident choreographer.) But instead of giving feedback, Stevenson made an offer. And in 2002, Peter Pan premiered at Houston Ballet to rave reviews.
Since then, McIntyre’s Peter Pan has been performed more times than he can keep track of. It’s become a familiar part of Houston Ballet’s repertory and has also been mounted by Pennsylvania Ballet and Australia’s Queensland Ballet. This long-overdue opportunity to, at long last, set it on OBT and present it to Portland is not just immensely gratifying to McIntyre, it also offers an important creative opportunity. Times change, people change, and what makes art most resonant can change, too. Recognizing that 2024 is not 2002, McIntyre has revamped the ballet especially for OBT’s production, and he thinks audiences will appreciate it more than anything.
“The original production is over 24 years old, which I can’t even believe,” he says. “When I was dancing with Houston Ballet, if we’d done a ballet that old I would have thought, ‘Why are we doing this dinosaur?’, and now that dinosaur is mine! But the ballet still really seems to have legs with audiences, and they really enjoy it.” Something McIntyre points out that has changed in the past two decades, however, are audience expectations and attention spans. “Especially for kids, what we are ready for when we come into the theater has evolved. So I’m removing some of the old ballet tropes of stopping the action for moments of pure dance, and instead am keeping the plot moving along. Yet there’s no shortage of excellent, exciting dancing for the entire cast, which I think everybody will really respond to.” In taking the ballet from its original three acts down to a more streamlined two, McIntyre relished this chance to tinker with his own work. “It’s like what people sometimes call ‘making a second pancake.’ Where you get to see and find out what works and doesn’t work, instead of just imagining it. To be able to make those kind of edits is really exciting.”
In many ways, McIntyre’s deep love for and curation of his version of Peter Pan is because he personally relates to the story so much. As a self-described “lifelong dreamer, he sees the artist’s existence in the narrative. “I think a big part of Peter Pan speaks to one of the principal journeys of being an artist. It’s about how one transitions into adulthood and the choices we make about what to bring with us, in terms of our beliefs, our optimism, our creativity. And what we choose to leave behind. As an artist, I’ve always straddled that. I’ve probably been something of a Peter Pan in my life. I’m 54, and I’ve spent most of my life dreaming. And that’s been a really satisfying life for me.”
Evolving, But Never Growing Up
In considering why the story of Peter Pan and Wendy still matters today, well over one hundred years since its conception, it becomes clear that the chords it strikes with audiences might actually be more important now than ever. Life demands much of us, whether we’re children or adults. Steering ourselves through the complicated, confusing, sometimes frightening waters of our days, at any age, can, and does, affect the way we perceive the world around us. The value of keeping a hold on a softer viewpoint, an innocence and openness, while assuming the responsibilities and joys of adulthood, is what McIntyre wants you to think about as you watch Peter Pan.
“If there’s something I want people to take away, it’s that regardless of where we’ve traveled in life or who we’ve become, we still have access to that childlike part of ourselves. It’s in there. And that’s why we go to the theater. People on stage are our archetypes; they do the things maybe we’re not ready to do on our own. I really hope that people can come into the theater with an open heart and let themselves go to that place.”
Gavin Larsen is a former OBT principal dancer. She now teaches and writes about dance from Asheville, NC. Her memoir, Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, was published in 2021.