Peter Pan, touring

Super Pan: you'll believe a dancer can fly...
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The Independent Culture

Being a company committed to storytelling has kept Northern Ballet Theatre on its toes at Christmas time. Not for NBT the annual resort to Nutcracker. In past seasons, Dickens' A Christmas Carol has come to the rescue. But this year David Nixon, NBT's Canadian director, has come up with a festive charmer that promises to keep ticket offices happy indefinitely. His danced Peter Pan ticks all the boxes. It's timely, viz the centenary of J M Barrie's story. It's a well-constructed narrative with a moral, and nicely wistful, message. It has something for everyone: flying, fights, suspense, nostalgia and even a whiff of romance. Best of all, it lends itself comfortably to dance. There's no sense of forcing a ballet out of Peter Pan. One knee raised, hands defiantly on hips, its hero comes with a ready-made dance identity.

Among the production's many enjoyable aspects is the ease with which it elides classical steps with flying. Thanks to specialist training from Flying by Foy, the dancers' new-found skill is remarkable. Try as I might, I could not catch a glimpse of Christian Broomhall's Peter attaching his wires before take-off, or disengaging afterwards. Dance and flight looked utterly seamless and natural, indeed, supernatural. All three Darling children get to levitate, too, and the scene that has them soaring with Peter against a dark, star-encrusted sky is too lovely for words. Unlike Birmingham Rep's The Snowman, in which "Walking in the Air" is a one-trick wonder, Peter Pan's big flight scene is an extended sequence that explores every possibility of airborne movement. And when steps and somersaults are finally exhausted, designer Peter Mumford sends on a flock of serenely circling seagulls, operated on rods by black-clad puppeteers below. Sustained by Stephen Warbeck's through-composed score - wonderfully atmospheric, percussion-rich, free-associating music - the scene bears comparison with 19th-century ballet's great White Acts: the Shades in Bayadère, or even the swans by the lake.

But Peter Pan was written as a story for children, and there is plenty here to engage even the very young. How they squealed over the crocodile with glowing eyes, and aaahed ecstatically (though that may have been their mothers) at the waggily realistic Nana, an actor encased in an English sheepdog suit. Given the potential for gooey nostalgia, this Peter Pan is nicely restrained. Even period detail is kept to a minimum. The children's room has a fire in the grate, Wendy wears a starched white nightie, and there is a maid to make the beds, but otherwise very little is Edwardian-specific. The design accent falls on the air of innocent make-believe, redolent of early productions of Barrie's play. Neverland is represented by sea-hollowed caves delineated by swirls of string. The pirate ship - seen, thanks to the revolve, both as deck and soaring prow - is the sort a child might draw.

You might suppose choreography would take a back seat, surrendered in favour of dumb-show theatricals. But Nixon creates some substantial dance numbers a clever mirror-duet for Peter and his shadow, a couple of yearning solos for Mrs Darling, and a tender duet for Peter and Pippa Moore's delightful Wendy which hints at emerging romantic feeling without spoiling the show's innocent pitch. There's also an inspired ensemble for a shoal of mermaids, particularly sexy as they lie on their backs flipping their tails, and plenty of energetic romps for the pirates and Lost Boys, along with some feisty Lost Girls. The one pity, I thought, was the decision to cast Tinkerbell as a 12-inch puppet. The plot turns on that creature's jealous spitefulness, and that simply didn't come across. Taken as a whole, though, this Peter Pan is a treat for old and young, far truer to the spirit of Barrie's story than the recent film.

Leeds Grand (0113-222 6222), to Fri; touring to Edinburgh Festival Theatre and Sadler's Wells, London EC1 in February and March 2005