“Peter Pan, Or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” has entered the public consciousness in countless ways. Rich as it is in subtext and psychology, J.M. Barrie’s story also charms with adolescent fantasy and adventure. Though Peter’s character was first glimpsed in print, the story of his relationship with Wendy Darling and how she came to nurture the Lost Boys debuted onstage in 1904.
The story has been told in many forms since, including ballet, but Sacramento Ballet co-artistic director Ron Cunningham will add his own version to the list this weekend with the world premiere of his original choreography for the familiar narrative.
“I’ve always been interested to tell that story through movement, but the music is the critical point,” Cunningham said at the rehearsal studio.
Looking for the appropriate score, Cunningham found a suite written for a Peter Pan ice ballet by Italian composer Silvio Amato, who recently moved to the United States.
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“The music is charming and delightful, and it nails the character and spirit of it,” Cunningham said.
“Peter Pan” is Cunningham’s 25th world premiere for the Sacramento Ballet, which has staged more than 50 of his ballets in his 27 years with the company.
“In my opinion movement is our first language,” Cunningham said. “Before we had spoken language we had gestural movement to communicate ideas. Movement can communicate ideas incredibly fast, so it can tell stories very, very quickly.”
As he begins developing his choreography, Cunningham breaks down the story into what are for him the essential components and then creates storyboards for those pieces, assigning passages of music to each segment. Then he works with the dancers.
“When I go into the studio I don’t really pre-plan anything beyond what I’m trying to say, and I work it out directly on the dancers,” Cunningham said. “The value of that is it makes a more collaborative experience, so they are truly invested in it because they have ownership of it.”
For “Peter Pan” Cunningham has company principals Rex Wheeler as Peter Pan, Alexandra Cunningham as Wendy, Maggie Rupp as Tinker Bell, Lauryn Winterholder as Tiger Lily and Christopher Nachtrab as Captain Hook.
Cunningham, who choreographs to the strengths and personalities of his dancers, feels this production is as suitably cast as any he’s ever had. In this ballet, he believes the comedic elements were more difficult to execute than the drama.
“There’s nothing flatter than a joke that doesn’t work, so I spent a lot of time on those comedic elements so we could get the timing just right, so it’s coordinated with the music. Otherwise, it doesn’t really work.”
Cunningham believes one of the Sacramento Ballet’s strengths has been the diversity of its repertoire, which mixes modern classics – George Balanchine, story ballets like “Peter Pan” and the upcoming “Swan Lake” – with contemporary work created for the company.
“If you’re in this company for five years, you dance just about everything there is to dance,” he said.
As someone who came to ballet as an adult, Cunningham knows what he wants to communicate to the audience.
“I always want to keep in my mind what I felt when I saw that first production, and how it moved me, and how it opened vistas for me I never knew existed,” he said.
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What: The Sacramento Ballet’s world premiere production of Ron Cunningham’s choreography; George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” is also part of the program.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13-14; 2 p.m. Feb.14-15
Where: Sacramento Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
Information: www.sacballet.org, (916) 808-5181, (916) 552-5800. ext. 2