Thirteen years in the making, and worth every minute of the wait — that sums up Imagine Ballet Theatre’s new production of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
When I saw the third of the four performances of the ballet by this delightful youth group, I wished I had been able to make time to see both of the largely double-cast production. It played at the Egyptian Theater in Ogden the weekend of November 10.
Having been put off the book by a particularly bad movie adaptation, I had just read it when I saw the performance. This production had a very strong sense of bringing Burnett’s vision to life. From the evocative score by Kurt Bestor to the lovingly constructed libretto, the production is constructed so we see the events through the eyes of the young heroine, Mary Lennox.
When other orphans from India are snapped up at the English train station, we feel her sense that she is alone in the world — but we also feel the sense that she is alone in part because she is such a demanding little brat. When she frantically searches out Colin, we feel her fear (“Mommy, that was way too scary!” said my eight-year-old) as she contends with the myriad doors of Misselthwaite Manor and the portraits that seem to follow her every move. And when she explains for Colin the wonders she has found in the Secret Garden and asking if he wouldn’t like to see them, too, we feel her joy.
An interesting dramatic choice artistic director and choreographer Raymond Van Mason made was to include the character of Lily (Colin’s deceased mother) from the very outset of the ballet. It is as if she is orchestrating things so that Mary will come to England, learn to couple kindness and strength with her strong will, and succeed in luring Colin and his father Archibald out of the shells they have made for themselves.
In interviews, both Bestor and Mason mentioned the shoe-string nature of the budget upon which The Secret Garden was built and how the whole production was a labor of love. Bestor also mentioned that he felt the best sets told the audience 20% and left 80% to the audience’s imagination. So, yes, the settings and props are spare due to budget constraints, but they are so intelligently spare that they seem a function of dramatic choice — the desire to suggest that 20% and leave 80% to the imagination — rather than limited funds. It’s amazing what one can accomplish with good lighting, a scrim, and a modicum of artistic common sense.
Once they had written the libretto, Bestor composed the music without once seeing how Mason was bringing it to life, which makes the utter seamlessness of their united vision all the more striking. Rather than separating the age groups within the company so that each got a three-minute variation, Mason produced the sort of integrated production one would expect from a full-time, professional company. His theatricality is the sort of thing that makes one sit back, sigh happily, and say, “Yes, this is how you move people around a stage.”
The production is filled with touches as clever as they are caring. The walls of the garden and the doors of the mansion are moved in, out, and around by dancers: the movement of the scenery is just integrated into the choreography so everything flows together. The animals befriended by Dickon each have their own little movement motif. When we first see the garden, there are only tiny groupings of flowers. Each time we see the garden, there are more till, by the end, the roses enter full bloom (and dance a complicated variation on pointe).
The production was filled with completely excellent performances, and I hate not to put every single name in the cast in print because they all deserve mention. I saw the cast headed by Allysa Alger, who is just a bundle of potential, all of it realized. Mary is onstage for almost the whole production, and Alger fulfilled every nuance Mason built into the role. Bratty, frightened, timid, and finally emerging as a luminous little being capable of lighting others with her warmth — Alger made Mary all Burnett purposed her to be. And — hey! — she can dance, and has a very nice line.
The bulk of the difficult solo pointe work goes to the Robin (who is actually a male in the book). In fact, almost the entire role is danced on pointe, and this includes things like changements and sisonnes. When she gets to come off her toes, she goes soaring through the air. Jennifer Jackson has one of the most thrilling, exuberant, buoyant grands jetés you can imagine, and she carried off the pointe work with complete aplomb.
The natural spot for a pas de deux is, of course, between the spirit of Lily (Chantel Christensen) and her pining husband Archibald (Mason). Christensen carried off the role with a beautiful doe-like quality that made you believe she was no longer a teen but a woman grown.
Colin, Dickon, and Martha (Mitchell Perry, Darren Smith, Kaitlin Poulter) were so charming I wish there had been a way to give them a little more play. Standouts among Dickon’s little entourage of animals were Reide Thompson as the Squirrel and Natalie Willes as the Raven. (In fact, Willes is on pointe for most of her role). Willes had the benefit of a sweet motif phrase — all strutting and bourreéing in parallel — but there was something about her natural vivacity and musicality that gave this little part extra snap and tells you she’s an artist to keep an eye on.
karen [at] saltshakermagazine.com