When the fairy dust of “Peter Pan” wafts across the Knight Theater stage Thursday night, it’ll settle on a meeting of age and youth, the teaming of a grandfather who has devoted more than half a century to dance and a fireball who’s just old enough to drink legally.
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux created “Pan” in 2004 for N.C. Dance Theatre with rented costumes and sets. He’s reviving it with new steps in a custom-built production.
Bonnefoux will trust the title role on opening night to Frederick Leo “Pete” Walker II, who finds himself all but airborne in his own life: Dance Magazine put him on its “25 to Watch” list, and he won one of eight fellowships in 2011 from the Princess Grace Foundation-U.S.A.
From a dancer’s point of view, Walker is still a youth: He didn’t take ballet seriously until his teens, and he’s in only his third season with NCDT, his first professional company. So perhaps he’s a natural to play the eternally youthful Peter, whom he discovered in elementary school on the cover of a Walt Disney video.
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“The colors on the box of the Disney version were so flamboyant,” Walker says. “I saw a kid soaring through the air with his arms spread wide and thought, ‘ My name is on the cover, and this kid is flying!’ It blew my mind.”
He’ll fly in Bonnefoux’s version, as do Tinker Bell, Wendy and her brothers. They’ll soar across sets by Howard Jones, director of the scenic art program at UNC School of the Arts, in costumes by New York designer Christina Giannini.
“There’s always a pull toward Walt Disney,” says Bonnefoux of young audiences’ expectations. “So we try to be a little familiar, but we go past those limitations. Captain Hook has two assistants who are 12 years old. We have a crocodile, but we also have six baby crocodiles.
“I felt the Indians in the story should be Incas. You see ruins and get the sense of an older civilization; the forest becomes almost frightening. One of my favorite things is the big tree house the Lost Boys have: A storm has blown a boat up there, and the boys fill the trees with their (property).”
Bonnefoux says his granddaughters and grandson “see things I don’t: They notice every little detail.” So details they will get, especially in costumes that mix author J.M. Barrie’s Edwardian era and steampunk. Tinker Bell enters in the dark, L.E.D. lights glowing in translucent wings: “It’s magic, and we couldn’t have done that nine years ago.”
When Bonnefoux looked at traditional dance productions of “Peter Pan,” the music didn’t have the joy he wanted. So he assembled overtures by Gioacchino Rossini – yes, including “William Tell” – and parts of the ballet “La Boutique Fantasque,” for which Ottorino Respighi orchestrated Rossini’s piano pieces.
Bonnefoux designed the title role in 2004 for Jason Jacobs but fit it to Walker’s outgoing personality, “Pete has a beautiful way of looking at life; he’s an optimist, and I want to make sure we show that,” he says. “And he’s a big man who has to fly, so the steps are a little different now.”
Walker likes Bonnefoux’s approach to rehearsals: “You have a general idea, and he lets you do your thing for a rehearsal or two, then slowly transitions into what he needs you to do. He tells us when not to be so big, when to save energy.” (Walker will also dance Hook, when Jordan Leeper plays Peter.)
Perhaps because Bonnefoux acted as a child before he danced, he values a full performance. He wants not just precise movement but emotional commitment, and that suits Pete Walker.
“I don’t have a lot of turnout, a lot of the classical aesthetic,” he says with a grin.
“For me, it’s not about being exactly on the count. It’s not about whether you can get your legs way up high or have perfect feet. It’s about everything you bring to the stage, the energy you share.”