Author James M. Barrie's Peter Pan character made it sound so easy: "You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts," Peter explained, "and they lift you up in the air."
But the dancers of the Howard County Ballet will have to bolster any "lovely, wonderful thoughts" with a sturdy rigging system and strong-armed stagehands when they "fly" around the stage this weekend for a ballet performance of Peter Pan.
"It's very safe and secure," said Kathi Ferguson, president and director of the Howard County Ballet. "You can do whatever you want and the pulleys support you."
The ballet company will present the classic tale of the ever-youthful lad Saturday and Sunday at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, featuring Ben Cramer as Peter.
"He's got extraordinary leaps with amazing heights from the floor, even without the pulleys," Ferguson said.
If you think this will be a remake of the Disney animated version with the addition of toe shoes, you're in for a surprise.
"I found, in looking at this whole project, if I wanted to do a lot of miming and just telling the story, it would become cumbersome," Ferguson said.
Instead, she pored over every rendering of the tale she could find to formulate her own interpretation, suitable for dancing.
"I watched as many versions of Peter Pan as I could," she said. "I decided to go off and do it my own way."
Rather than the updated adaptations, it was Barrie's original work, published in 1904, that served as the template for the production.
"I got my inspiration mostly from the words," Ferguson said. "The words are very danceable. The words inspire my choreography."
Barrie's description of a chase around the island in Chapter 5 inspired Ferguson to choreograph an energetic "circle dance" involving Peter, pirates, lost boys and others. Similarly, a passage about the stars in the night sky inspired a classical segment in the show, where dancers, clad in black and gold shimmering costumes, make star formations against a black backdrop.
The choreography is set to a score by British composer Malcolm Arnold.
Some stage productions of Peter Pan use a white light to capture the fleeting essence of the ethereal Tinker Bell. Instead, Ferguson opted to cast Rebecca Friedman as the fairy.
"For her, the movement is very quick and sprightly. Her variation is very challenging," Ferguson said. "She's delightful to watch. She's small and lithe with very elegant features."
Another device that the director incorporates into the ballet is the use of an omniscient third party, Liza the maid, played by Erin Maskell. She serves as narrator as she flies along with Peter, Wendy and the others from the nursery to Neverland.
For Ferguson, the on-stage flight is the most exciting part of the performance.
"We've never flown before," she said. As director, she felt it was her duty to give it a whirl before allowing the dancers to try it.
"I wouldn't ask them to do it without doing it myself first," she said. "It felt great, totally fun."
Fisher Theatrical LLC provided the rigging, which consists of an intricate network of harnesses, cables, pulleys, weights and counterweights. A crew of "big strong men," who are required to be just as familiar with the choreography as the dancers are, operates the apparatus behind the scenes.
Ferguson predicts that the dancers' excitement over flying will spill over to the audience during the performances. "It's hard to keep them quiet during rehearsal, it's so much fun," she said. "It's the ultimate fun for a dancer to dance in the air."
As Wendy says, "Oh, how lovely to fly."
The Howard County Ballet will present "Peter Pan" on Saturday and Sunday at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. Performances begin at 2:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for children, students and senior citizens; $18 for others. Tickets may be purchased in advance at Aesthetics Dance, 3240 E. Corporate Court, Ellicott City, or by phone, 410-465-8233. Tickets also may be purchased at the door one hour before the show.