The Festival Ballet Theater will open its 28th season this week with a production that combines dance, multimedia stage projections, an original musical score and a well-known children’s novel from 1911. “The Secret Garden”, choreographed by Josie Walsh, invites the public to see Movement of the 21st century interpreted by dancers who study an art form born at the end of the 15th century.
“A lot of people think of ballet as literally ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Swan Lake,’ but I want people to know it can be more than that,” said Walsh, artistic director of the contemporary-based company. at Los Angeles BalletRed. “(Ballet companies) love narrative ballets because that’s what draws people in. I just don’t see why it couldn’t be more contemporary.”
And so, what visitors will get when “The Secret Garden” opens at the Irvine Barclay Theater on Saturday is contemporary choreography wrapped into the comfortable structure of a more classic story ballet.
“It’s great for dancers to dance in different styles,” said Festival Ballet Theater artistic director Salwa Rizkalla, who enjoys accompanying her company’s annual holiday production of “The Nutcracker” with contemporary ballet. and a classical ballet. “It challenges them and makes them happy and versatile.”
“The Secret Garden” is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of a spoiled orphan girl named Mary who is sent to live with her uncle. There, Mary discovers a hidden garden, and the story begins to reveal complex themes such as loss, dreams, hope and transformation, Walsh said.
To begin with, Walsh took inspiration from her screenwriter parents and wrote the ballet as a cinematic treatment.
“Writing it like a director allowed me to get my head out of my choreographer a bit and make sure I didn’t get lost on a tangent of movement,” Walsh said.
This process coincides with her decision to create a narrative ballet instead of an all-dance, storyless production.
“People get attached to the story,” Walsh said. “So I’m always thinking about what visuals and metaphors I can use to make people part of the story and experience it viscerally. … The beauty of live theater is that it is palpable.
When the Festival Ballet Theater performed a one-act version of “The Secret Garden” in 2012, 22-year-old company member Skye Schmidt recalls audiences reacting positively.
“I think the audience was mesmerized because they went completely silent,” Schmidt said. “(Secret Garden) is fresh and new and special, and I think that appeals to you a bit more.”
Something that might grab viewers’ attention early on is the production design. Working with an interactive digitally projected backdrop, Walsh uses dancers to stage, making them become trees and flowers in the garden instead of traditional backdrops.
Not only does the lack of sets make it a transportable and easy-to-visit production, Walsh said, she actually felt more creative working with less.
“If you see a tree as a whole, you’re not going to feel its essence,” Walsh said. “If it’s a dancer, it comes to life and opens up a whole new world.”
The dancers agree, noting that this more abstract approach adds to the artistic and emotional interpretation of the ballet. The entrance to the hidden garden, for example, is illustrated by a trio of dancers who represent a lock.
“The trio à clef is one of my favorite parts of ballet because you don’t expect it,” says dancer Renee Kester, 23, who plays Mary Lennox. “There are many magical moments like this in ‘The Secret Garden’ that remind you why the art is still alive.”
But the art’s relevance isn’t limited to those “magical moments,” said dancer AJ Abrams, who plays Archibald Craven. He said people will also be intrigued by the relationships featured in the ballet.
“The storytelling is impeccable and it stirs emotions that connect human beings to one another,” Abrams said, adding that he feels at home dancing Walsh’s contemporary choreography.
As Walsh prepares for opening night, she already has her sights set on the future. She hopes to show ballet companies that investing in new ballets such as “The Secret Garden” is worth the risk, and she hopes to attract a new generation of ballet patrons by incorporating contemporary music and dance.
“A lot of people don’t see how sensuous and avant-garde contemporary ballet can be,” she said. “It can actually be very commercial without losing its artistic integrity.”
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