Dallas — How do we negotiate topics of segregation, erasure, gender, sexuality, identity, and morality in the modern era? Dark Circles Contemporary Dance’s (DCCD) Artistic Director Joshua L. Peugh chose to explore these questions in the form of a classic childhood tale: Peter Pan. While based on J. M. Barrie’s original story, the similarities between his and Peugh’s adaptation — called Pete: A New Dance Musical — are limited to character names and a loose outline of the plot. Hot off the heels of collaborative work with Bharatanatyam company Tejas Dance, it’s exciting to see DCCD continuing to redefine the boundaries of a contemporary dance company — particularly in this massive leap into the realm of “dance musical.” Not only does Peugh reexamine his relationship to the narrative aspect of movement but challenges himself further by bring together a fresh group of musicians, composers, actors, and artists. Through Pete, we see a rare collision of multi-disciplinary artists revealing uniquely personal experiences through the universally accessible subjects of childhood and coming-of-age trials.
Hamon Hall in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, where DCCD has previously performed two works in the Elevator Project (Pete is not part of that series), is a fine space for this work. Surrounded by risers for the audience seating, the stage floor transforms into its own island — occupied only by a single jungle-gym structure on wheels. The theater-in-the-round set-up adds to the intimate nature of the performance — magnified by the up-close-and-personal performances of the dancers. From the start, viewers are challenged to experience the familiar story from their childhood through an alternative lens: Wendy and Pete are reinvented as a black, gay men (played by Quintin Jones, Jr. and Cordell Weathersbee II, respectively); Captain Hook is split between two white men (Peugh dances him, and Kyle Igneczi sings the role from the side of the stage); and black women play the roles of Smee (Jori Jackson), Tinkerbell (Brittanee Bailey) and Tiger Lily (Kierra Gray). The latter trio also serves as Lost Boys. Instantly, all pre-conceived notions of Peter Pan rub-up against racial stereotypes, gender norms, and society-programed ideas of correctness.
Absent of the verbal explication scenes found in theatrical musicals, Peugh’s Pete unravels Wendy’s narrative through a blend of musical numbers and dance sections. Composer Brandon Carson’s score encompasses Caribbean steel drums and island beats with sprinkles of Irish sea shanties. Kierra Gray’s lyrics relate straightforward lines about self-acceptance, desire, and identity. Poetic and authentically human, her lines express Wendy’s ache to find a partner with whom he could share date nights, Captain Hook’s conflicting longing for power and belonging, and Tink’s jealousy in “adding a third.”
As the production proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that adherence to the original story is hardly important — rather, the loose storyline and focus on the body as a tool to construct a narrative allows for a broader interpretation. The performance relies on a mixture of audience knowledge and character actualization in developing a multi-layered tale that offers individual variations of meaning.
Now let’s examine the movement. After becoming accustomed to DCCD’s crew of contemporary movers, seeing Peugh’s grounded, twisty, fluid movement on a group of new bodies is both refreshing and satisfying. While his signature aesthetic prevails throughout the work, we also see blends of Afro-Caribbean steps, urban/street style, and even hints of ballroom dance. Though Gray’s lyrics give some sense of narration, Peugh’s choreography holds the most weight in terms of story-building and atmosphere. One of the most distinctive cases of body language emerges from Weathersbee’s portrayal of Pete. Embracing a flamboyant, hip-hop style, Weathersbee undulates through the space with Peugh’s distinctive smooth quality—continuously interrupted with bursts of aggressive stomps and forceful breakdancing. But his most intriguing movement language emerges through loose head and arm placements reminiscent of voguing and Ballroom battles — fitting with the themes of sexuality, gender, and identity.
A close relationship to Carson’s syncopated rhythms reveals a complex connection to the racial implications of the characters and the urban setting in which they inhabit. These examples of bent knees, repetitive patterns, body percussion, and emphasis on the pelvis and hip movements create a stark contrast to the giddy shuffles, upright posture, and lifted chins that appear in the more Westernized musical numbers — displaying a medley of cultural, social, and class differences.
Culminating in a climactic dance-battle between Peugh as Captain Hook, and Pete and his crew, the production ends with confrontational walks and isolated limb snaps along a diagonal spatial pattern — providing a building intensity and captivating visual. The cohesive push-and-pull of the cast results in fascinating relationships and diverse characterizations.
What can DCCD’s version of Peter Pan teach us about race, sexuality, and morality? In a talk-back with the cast and creators after the performance, one common theme was clear: Pete is not about adhering to the (problematically dated) story of a boy who never grows up. Rather, it focuses on the importance of offering individuals with wildly varied backgrounds, experiences, and identities the opportunity to insert their personal stories within the fabric of a classic tale traditionally inaccessible to certain populations.