Fort Worth Dallas Ballet and composer Stewart Wallace may have broken the rules, but he scored a rousing success with the new music for a ballet version of Peter Pan.
This production of Peter Pan opened on April 21 at Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas, with Fort Worth Dallas Ballet on stage and Wallace's music played by the Fort Worth Symphony, conducted by Ron Spigelman. Peter Pan arrives at Bass Performance Hall on Friday for four performances through Sunday.
Texas-reared, New York-based Wallace, 39, is used to challenging the accepted way of doing things. He majored in liberal arts, not music, at the University of Texas at Austin; he was a teen-age rock musician who trained himself as a composer by poring over the scores of Stravinsky. He made his name in the music world with operas about comic-book hero Dick Tracy and gay rights' activist and martyr Harvey Milk; one upcoming project is a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra.
So it's not surprising that he leapt at the chance to write a ballet score to fit existing choreography, which is opposite of the way it is usually done. Fort Worth Dallas Ballet had the sets, costumes and choreography from Scottish choreographer Graham Lustig's Peter Pan ballet of 1988; but Fort Worth Dallas Ballet artistic director Ben Houk and executive director David Mallette wanted music more immediately appealing for their family-friendly production.
Wallace compared the task to writing a film score, wherein a composer makes music to go with already-filmed action. Wallace sat down with a videotape of Lustig's ballet and turned down the sound
"It was a chance to look at how music affects dance," Wallace says.
The result sounds unlike any other ballet score; if it calls anything to mind, it's the full-length scores of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky - but with important differences.
The style is pure late-20th-century/early-21st-century eclecticism. It's mostly tonal, but with free use of dissonance. The orchestration is unusually thick and colorful for a ballet score; composers tend to stick with lighter textures for a ballet score, but Wallace paints with bold strokes and succeeds in enhancing, rather than distracting from, the choreography.
Like the big ballet scores of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, Wallace's Peter Pan is loaded with memorable melodies. Ballet scores are, by necessity, rhapsodic and sectional in structure, because the action generally falls into short scenes. As a recurring theme, Wallace borrows a Bernstein-like lullaby melody, Pictures on Your Pillow, that his father wrote for him and his siblings when they were young. The effect is heartwarming even if you don't know the personal connection of the melody.
But Wallace does something that neither Tchaikovsky nor Prokofiev would have done, borrowing freely from well-known and not-so-well-known sources: There are snippets of Bernstein's Candide, Britten's Peter Grimes, his own Where's Dick? and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, for a gloriously drunken version of the Waltz of the Flowers. Only a master could get away with this, and Wallace gets away with it handsomely. And there are several repetitions of that fine old ballad No Place Like Home.
Traditionally, choreographers are inspired by existing music - as, for instance, when Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, a piece of abstract concert music, inspired Balanchine's masterpiece of semi-abstract ballet, Serenade.
For a story ballet, a choreographer may have a composer-arranger draw together existing music with the appropriate mood, as Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson did for his ballet version of Dracula, which features music by Liszt, arranged by contemporary composer John Lanchberry, and will be performed in the fall by Fort Worth Dallas Ballet.
And often, a choreographer may have a concept and then commission a composer to write music to go with his ideas, after which the choreographer, usually working closely with the composer, creates the choreography. That's how many of the masterpieces for the repertoire - for instance, Nutcracker - evolved.
Neither Wallace nor Fort Worth Dallas Ballet executive director Mallette would reveal how much Wallace was paid to write the score; Mallette says that it was a major investment for the company.
And it was worth it. With all respect to the wonderful action on the stage, this is one ballet where you can almost close your eyes because the music is so good.
Unorthodox music for 'Peter Pan' can fly on its own
Wayne Lee Gay, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
(Life & Arts Pg. 11, May 3, 2000)