Arts: Dance - The production that never grew up

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The Independent Culture
GIVEN THAT ballet dancers have spent centuries exerting enormous muscular effort to fight gravity, flying wires sound like a real solution. What better than the alliance of ballet's grace with the strain-free ability to soar and float, you might think.

But when the Atlanta Ballet's Peter Pan swoops into the Darlings' nursery window, it quickly becomes clear that this isn't it. It's not just that a wire actually restricts earthbound movement - pirouettes seem impossible - but that this company has not yet found a way of making it, or the harness, invisible.

Besides which the production is something of a missed opportunity. Perhaps children can appreciate its straight-forwardly literal scenario; perhaps the Royal Festival Hall lacks the facilities for elaborate stage effects. But where JM Barrie's tale is an open invitation to poetry and enchantment, this pedestrian production opts for John McFall's long-winded class- room choreography and Peter Cazalet's bland painted settings - although I have to say the starry sky on the way to Never Never Land is beautiful.

The costumes and characters look exactly as you would expect, probably avoiding a riot from Peter Pan fans. Peter is in his tattered green romper suit; Tinkerbell in her tinsel tulle; John, the elder Darling boy, in his top hat and nightshirt.

John Walker is a suitably frisky Peter, who sprinkles his movement with Peter Pan poses (one foot raised to the opposite knee) and carries Wendy (Naomi-Jane Dixon) in swooning, circular lifts for a pas de deux symbolising Wendy's romantic yearnings.

Princess Tiger Lily and the Indian Maidens' long dance mixes ballet with a Martha Graham primitiveness. Meanwhile, Carmon DeLeone's knee-jerk score (played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia) reacts to the demands of each incident with the appropriate musical mood, echoing Broadway, Bach, Britten and more.

Most entertaining character is the Crocodile (Steven Salter), who performs a Michael Jackson moon dance to the glee of the audience, lollops along the edge of the stage, and grabs Captain Hook for a doom-laden tango. The most impressivehuman is the infant Michael, who's played by a girl, Lainey Shilling, still a ballet student in Atlanta, who brings conviction while avoiding sickly cuteness.

We had previously thought the San Francisco Ballet to be the USA's oldest company. But the Atlanta Ballet, which began as a concert group in 1929, makes that claim. Its 22 dancers have enthusiasm, but Peter Pan gives them a provincial, second-rate air. Children, though, tend to be intent on the storytelling and the little girl who filed out of the theatre in front of me was ecstatic.

RFH, South Bank, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) to 8 Jan