Making history, with the making of 'Peter Pan'

If ever there was a union meant to be, it’s Steven McMahon and Peter Pan. When Artistic Director Dorothy Gunther Pugh began talking with Steven about creating a new Peter Pan on the company, even she didn’t realize how deep the connections would run. Not only was the creator of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie, Scottish like Steven, but Peter Pan was also the first ballet that Steven ever saw as a young boy in Scotland, and ultimately was the catalyst to his career in dance.

It began when the Scottish Ballet was performing Peter Pan and as part of their community education, paid a visit to the Dance School of Scotland where Steven was a student. During that outreach, Steven was invited to play a “lost boy” and other characters, and ultimately was encouraged to join the Scottish Ballet School. The rest is history.  

Now, Steven is creating a new piece of history for Ballet Memphis, leading the charge to create the largest production in its near 30-year tenure. “Our goal is to make this production worthy of the intense amount of work it will take, and something that the entire Memphis community will be proud of for years to come,” said Steven. “This desire ultimately led us to putting it on the backburner for a while until we could realize it fully and do it right.”  

Three years later, explained Steven, the production is near fruition. “Choreography is just one part of what you see on stage.” A team had to be assembled, comprised of people who identified with Steven’s aesthetic. Enter Tony Award-nominated set designer of Broadway’s Rock of Ages, among many others, Beowulf Boritt. “What he’s bringing to the stage is simply amazing and will completely pull the audience into the action in a three-dimensional way,” said Steven. Add to that prowess the amazing costumes of Anne Armit, who designed the costumes for Mark Godden’s Midsummer Night’s Dream created for Ballet Memphis in 2009. After a few rounds with Steven, she had the Peter Pan costumes built in Canada and fitted to the dancers in Memphis. “And they are so fabulous and fun,” said Dorothy.

“And functional,” added Steven, because the costumes not only include a crocodile puppet operated by several dancers, a four-legged friend who dances partially on stilts, mermaids who have to dance in full-length tails, and tattooed pirates, but they also give the main characters the ability to fly. And fly they will.  

ZFX out of Louisville, Ky., will supply the complicated, fully-automated flying system. “We knew we wanted the flying to be spectacular,” said Steven. “And the way most theaters do it is manually with ropes on the side of the stage.” But Steven wanted more for his dancers—a safer way to operate the flying, a way to use more dancers dancing instead of working the ropes, and ultimately a way to let the flying dancers perform more spectacular and creative movement in the air. Steven has actually taken a “test flight” on ZFX’s system in order to choreograph movement for his cast. “It’s really difficult, and you have to be really fit and strong, but you can do amazing things in the air,” said Steven.  

And then there was the musical score. Steven listened to recordings used for other Peter Pan productions, but nothing quite fit his penchant for storytelling or his style of choreography, so he set out to compile his own score. Nine months of immersion into music to find just the right pieces for each moment of the storyline—all the while hiring designers and designing sets and costumes—and the compilation was complete.  

So why Peter Pan now? “Our national reputation has grown for delivering exceptional quality and accessible art to the stage,” said Dorothy. “Our Wizard of Oz and River Project are touring to much acclaim. We have to continue pushing our dancers and ourselves artistically, creatively and emotionally to remain relevant for future audiences. And if we could show every child how dance can help them ‘fly’ in so many ways, we’ve done our part for the arts and the community as a whole.”