Peter Pan flying on stage

Dancing on Air

How Cincinnati Ballet Dancers Take Flight in Peter Pan

There is no doubt that moment when Peter Pan first flies through the window of the Darling nursery, it’s absolute magic for the audience. 

“That spirit of flying, of being that free,” says Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer Cervilio Amador. “People love it. Who hasn’t at one point wanted to be a Lost Boy, Peter Pan, or a pirate?” Amador is a seasoned veteran at performing ‘the boy who never grew up.’ This year’s production of choreographer Septime Webre’s Peter Pan, with a delightful score by Cincinnati Ballet Music Director Carmon DeLeone, marks the fourth time in his career Amador’s danced the charming character.  He last danced the title character in Cincinnati Ballet’s 2014-2015 Season production of Peter Pan. Amador said it’s one his all-time favorite roles to perform. “It’s a great ballet, the music is amazing.” He said. “Second, it’s so much fun. There are all these fabulous things you get to do. As a performer, I mean, you get to fly.”

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Who hasn’t wanted to fly? Or dreamt of soaring through the air? To look for the ‘second star to the right and fly ‘straight on ‘til morning,’ all the way to Neverland?  J.M. Barrie, the author of the 1904 original story on which the ballet is based, attributed Peter’s ability to fly to “lovely, wonderful thoughts and fairy dust.” While that may have been enough for Barrie’s imagination, for Cincinnati Ballet’s production of Peter Pan, it takes quite a lot more than positive thinking to propel company dancers high into the air. “Peter Pan flies, the two boys fly, Wendy flies,” said Melinda Dobson, Cincinnati Ballet’s Production Stage Manager. “There’s a whole fight scene in the second act where Peter Pan fights Captain Hook and he’s in the air. It’s just visually very exciting.” Behind the curtain – unbeknownst to the audience – is a technical dance of tracks, wires, and faith that creates the aerial wizardry seen on stage.

So How Do They Do That?

To answer that question, we must timehop back to 1954 and meet up with a mid-century, theatrical magician named Peter Foy. Foy was a stage flying effects specialist, hired to fly an actress named Mary Martin in a new musical version of Peter Pan being staged on Broadway. Martin wanted her Peter Pan to fly higher, faster, and farther than had ever been attempted before, but the flying equipment of the day couldn’t accomplish the task. Foy invented an entirely new flying system, which allowed Martin to fly beyond what were traditionally considered “control zones” and move her very, very rapidly through the air. Foy’s flying innovation ushered in a new era of extraordinary, highly-controlled, natural-looking free flight. According to Flying by Foy Contract Administrator Jim Hansen, Foy’s determination to preserve the magic of flight by concealing its mechanism from the audience’s view then led to his introduction of the Track-On-Track system in 1962. The ingenious arrangement allowed independent control of lift and travel. It’s the same mechanism used to make Peter fly in this production. “Track-on-Track quickly became the most ubiquitous system used,” Hansen said. There’s one flying operator for lift, while another flying operator controls travel across the stage. “In one way you can look at the operator and the dancer as dance partners. The lifter is the operator off stage. It’s very much like an adagio or a duet. The lifter is an adagio is visible. In this dance, the lifter (operator) is invisible,” Hansen explained. A separate pendulum system is used to make Wendy and the Darling children fly. Foy’s trade secrets are so protected, photographs of the flying equipment itself, including harnesses, are strictly forbidden to protect Foy’s patented devices and to preserve the ‘magic’ of the flying effects.

JLD102914PP0018Flying Lessons

Cincinnati Ballet dancers spent weeks learning the music and choreography before the flight rehearsal at Music Hall. Flying by Foy provided a Flying Director for an intensive three-day period, during which he supervised the installation of the flying equipment, performed harness fittings, and directed and rehearsed the cast and crew in the necessary choreography of the flying sequences. “The flying only happens in the theater,” Dobson said. “We go through the basic blocking in the studio. For example, they still practice the arm they use to cue the Foy flight operators. The dancers also walk the track, they walk the paths they’ll take through the air. We then have a four-hour flying rehearsal. The flight choreographer calls it and controls it from back stage.”

“It’s physical. When you’re learning to fly, there is a trust there,” said Johanna Bernstein Wilt, Cincinnati Ballet’s former artistic associate, who staged this season’s production of Peter Pan. For many years, Bernstein Wilt has been the primary repetiteur for Septime Webre’s Peter Pan, staging the production at ballet companies around the country. Over the years, Wilt Bernstein has helped many dancers learn to fly. “It’s kind of crazy, some people are really good at it,” Bernstein Wilt said. “You’re not preparing to jump. You are placing yourself in the space that you’re supposed to be, holding your body in the way that it should be, so you can be easily lifted, but you really have to give it over to the operator pulling the ropes.” Amador agreed that to create the effortless flight we see on stage takes precise technical coordination between the dancer and the operator in the wing. “It’s a lot of timing. On top of that, you’re acting and doing choreography,” Peter flies several times in each act,” he said. “One of the hardest is the fight scene with Captain Hook, you have to be in the air the whole time and there are a lot of flips, that one is one the hardest ones to get right.” But has he ever been afraid? “I’m not a fearful kind of person, I get more excited than afraid.” Amador explained when flying on stage, it’s not just what goes up that must be considered, but what’s comes down. “Going down, if you don’t get it right, you could stumble into the floor.” Bernstein Wilt said there’s also a lot riding on the focus on the operator, especially the first time Peter appears on stage, when he flies through the window of the Darling children’s nursery. “The operator is balancing on a rope, balancing against the weight of the person going up in the air,” she said about the scene when Peter first appears. “It involves jumping off a ladder for the operator off stage as Peter comes through the window.”

It’s what the audience never sees — the technical dance backstage — that makes the theatrical magic of Peter Pan possible. That, and of course, plenty of pixie dust.

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