- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2001

Peter Pan will swoop through a window on the Warner Theatre's stage to begin the Washington Ballet's version of the timeless tale almost a century after he first flew in the window in J.M. Barrie's play.

Dancer Jason Hartley, who plays the title role, is not surprised that the company's artistic director, Septime Webre, chose "Peter Pan" for his second family audience ballet.

"Septime's a kid at heart," Mr. Hartley says. "This is right up his alley. He understands."

Mr. Webre produced the enormously successful "Where the Wild Things Are" last winter.

At a recent company rehearsal, the director certainly had the energy of a rambunctious teen-ager as he galloped across the studio. The atmosphere was relaxed, but the concentration and energy level were intense as the dancers acted out the drama of the boy who would not grow up and the adventures Wendy and her brothers encountered as they followed Peter Pan to Never Never Land.

The dancers were clearly enjoying the high antics as they slashed at each other in fast-paced sword fights, or confronted Captain Hook with braggadocio. Hook, played by John Goding, slithered through a hilarious duet with the crocodile, set to a slyly witty tango in Carmon DeLeone's original orchestral score.

The high-speed near-collisions involved considerable daring as pirates, Indian maidens, Peter and Captain Hook whizzed past each other. But the wild card was what lay ahead.

The day after that rehearsal, the dancers taking the roles of Peter and the Darling children — Wendy, John and Michael — encountered the magic and hazards of flying for the first time. Strapping on the harnesses designed by Flying by Foy, they were instructed in the art of being airborne.

Mr. Hartley reports that flying across the stage 20 feet in the air doing flips was fun. "But after the flipping is over," he says, "a little bit of pain and discomfort sets in." But trouper that he is, Mr. Hartley was more intrigued by the startling effect he created than his pain.

"Almost every time I enter the stage, I fly in," he says, "and that's fun. I'm in charge of seeing that I'm in the right place when it's time to take off, and [Flying by Foy is] in charge of making sure I'm in the right place when I land. I can't control that at all — and there are a few pinpoint landings I have to make."

One time, Mr. Hartley has to avoid a window box; the next, he has to clear a stair railing before he lands; another, he alights on a high bookcase.

The drama of flying is just one of the ways Mr. Webre has tried to make the ballet appealing to a large audience. The ballet is to be performed five times next weekend, with an additional two already-sold-out morning performances for schoolchildren. This means the production has a potential audience of 10,000 people.

"I've always been interested in the Peter Pan story because it holds in it the message of trying to retain a sense of childlike wonderment while we approach our adult lives with seriousness," Mr. Webre says.

"I think my own Peter Pan syndrome is still kicking," he adds with a grin.

Victoria Morgan, director of the Cincinnati Ballet, asked Mr. Webre shortly after he became director of the Washington Ballet if he would stage "Peter Pan" for her company. She had the sets, costumes and a tuneful score by Mr. DeLeone, but she needed new choreography. They agreed upon a joint project, with the Washington Ballet giving the world premiere and the Cincinnati group dancing it later. Mr. Webre turned to Washington designer Holly Highfill, who did about 75 percent of the scenery.

"One of the design concepts we used is that Captain Hook is a baroque era pirate," Mr. Webre says. "So we used baroque era opera and theater design as the basis for the fantasy scenes, both Never Never Land and the pirate ship. For the shipboard scene, there are moving waves with gilded dolphin wheels that move.

"In contrast, the nursery scene is realistic," he says. "It's an Edwardian nursery, but in the same set are hidden some clues as to what we're going to see later on in the ballet."

Even with the flying, the baroque designs and the lush score, the dancing is dynamic and complex enough to take pride of place. Mr. Webre says that as a choreographer he set himself two personal goals for "Peter Pan."

"One goal was to really infuse the steps with character. My steps are usually inspired by the music, but I wanted to give them dramatic coloring. And the second goal was to challenge the dancers classically. It's good for them, and it's fun. Wait till you see Tiger Lily and the Indian Maidens — they are positively post-Balanchinean," he says with a chuckle.

Mr. Webre has enjoyed working with Mr. DeLeone's score. "It combines symphonic ideas with wonderful, lush melodies," he says. "And particularly in the percussion section, it's filled with wit."

The music will be heard live at next weekend's premiere. It will be performed by leading students at the Levine School of Music, augmented by professional union musicians. This collaboration with the Levine School is another innovation since Mr. Webre assumed the director's reins 11/2 years ago. It follows collaborations with the Cathedral Choral Society in "Carmina Burana," the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and an upcoming project with Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Subscriptions to the Washington Ballet have more than tripled, and Mr. Webre says many of the new subscribers have come about through what he calls his "family oriented" ballets.

"Our plan is to develop a handful of wonderful productions that will provide some box-office panache and attract new audiences to the company," he says.

Besides the impact made by the excellent dancers Mr. Webre has retained or brought in since his arrival, he is making a mark with several outreach projects. Most important is Dance DC, a training program for inner-city children.

The company has launched an organization called the Jete Society, designed to attract young professionals, which has 175 members its first year.

The director also has been holding post-performance discussions. "They are not only held to educate the audience about what they've just seen, but also to put a human face on the institution," he says. " I think people attach themselves to institutions that they feel comfortable with and understand." WHAT: The Washington Ballet in "Peter Pan"WHERE: Warner Theatre, 1299 Pennsylvania Ave. NWWHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Feb. 3 and Feb. 4TICKETS: $26.50 to $43.50PHONE: 202/432-SEAT

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